By Ruth Schechter
I learned a new word the other day, and now I am thinking about it all the time. The word is kunefe, and it is the name of a classic Turkish dessert made with layers of shredded phyllo dough that have been filled with soft cheese, baked until crisp and then drizzled with sweet syrup. A sprinkle of pistachio bits top it. Yum.
I had kunefe for the first time during a leisurely lunch at Cafe Baklava in Mountain View and shamelessly gorged on the entire pancake-sized portion. That's saying a lot, since we had started our meal with not one, but two full baskets of warm, puffy pita bread dunked into a fabulous — and addictive — sundried tomato and olive oil dipping sauce.
The menu at Cafe Baklava covers a full range of traditional Turkish offerings, from taboule (parsley salad) to gyros, falafel, kebabs and moussaka. Variations of wraps are served at lunch (chicken, fish, lamb or vegetables rolled in flatbread, $7.95-$8.95), but the menu remains pretty much the same throughout the day and evening.
Owner Iliano Yuksel opened the Mountain View eatery in 2005 after several years working in Mediterranean restaurants in the Bay Area. He opened a sister enterprise called Baklava in downtown Palo Alto in May 2010.
As you enter the original Baklava through a side door, you have a choice of an open seating area with large windows overlooking the sidewalk on one side, or a smaller area, with two booths and diminutive two-tops squished against one wall. Decor is minimal, with a bank of wine bottles by the entrance and ersatz grape clusters scattered throughout the ceiling, with close-set tables draped with white tablecloths topped by white paper. The 32 indoor seats get lots of competition from several outdoor tables along a quiet walkway — what feels like real patio dining as opposed to plopping some tables along the busy sidewalks of Castro Street.
Everything except the pita bread is made on-site. Menu descriptions sound mouth-watering, with several recurring ingredients like lamb, feta, rice, yogurt sauce, tomatoes and eggplant. While most dishes did deliver the goods, there were a few disappointments where combinations lacked complexity or verve.
Most people are familiar with Turkish cuisine through mezzes, appetizer-like small plates like hummus and dolmas. We shared the mezze platter ($12.95 for two), a sampler that included large portions of delicious, fresh dolmas (grape leaves stuffed with deeply flavored rice and pine nuts), crispy falafel balls and a savory baba ganoush (eggplant spread). Less successful was the cevizli peynir, a mix of goat cheese, walnuts and red peppers that just didn't seem to come together. At another visit, we started with the sigara boregi ($6.95), deep-fried phyllo stuffed with feta cheese and minced meat — sort of a Turkish eggroll — which is best eaten while it's still hot.
The lamb moussaka ($18.95), a special one evening, was a rich blend of deeply flavored meat topped with a thick layer of creamy bechamel sauce. Karniyarik ($12.95), roasted eggplant topped with minced beef, tomatoes and spices, and served with a side of rice and vegetables, was overloaded so it tasted solely of meat without the counterbalance of the more subtle eggplant.
The Iskender kebab ($12.95) was a delight: Slices of meat are piled atop pieces of pita bread with a bevy of spices and a generous side of thick sour yogurt. Mixed together, the ingredients meld into a silky-smooth concoction full of flavor, texture and panache. Served with a side of rice and vegetables, the combo kebab ($17.95) included two pieces each of chicken, beef and lamb. The yogurt-marinated chicken and the ground lamb were done perfectly — moist and flavorful throughout, but the beef was overcooked and tough.
Which brings us back to dessert. On our first visit, the kunefe had me fantasizing about how soon I could return for another burst of gluttony. The second time broke my heart: the pastry was scorched on the outside, cold on the inside and swimming in syrup. The restaurant was filled to overflowing that evening, so perhaps the kitchen was swamped, but the experience left us with a sense of inconsistent quality control.
One thing that did stay consistent throughout was the service. Water was refilled diligently, pita was replenished without request, and charming waitstaff patiently explained ingredients and cooking techniques of unfamiliar dishes. One waiter kept returning to ensure I was happy with my experiment of sallep ($2.50), a hot cinnamon beverage thickened with orchid root — something akin to tapioca without the lumps. And even during that difficult evening, waitstaff stayed cool and attentive.
Cafe Baklava covers a lot of culinary ground, some more successfully than others. But for a bona fide taste of classic Turkish dishes, it remains a friendly, casual place to experiment with traditional flavors in a friendly, casual setting.
341 Castro St., Mountain View.
Hours: Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m.
Sun. noon-9:30 p.m.
Credit cards: Yes
Parking: Street and nearby lots
Outdoor seating: Yes
Party facilities: No
Noise level: Average
Bathroom cleanliness: Good