Restaurateur Sam Khamis and Chef Mustafa Gelli serve up the tastes and aromas of the Mediterranean By Bonnie Cavanaugh
Istanbul, a three-year-old fine/casual dining restaurant, banquet hall, and caterer, sits quietly about midway between the Buy-Rite liquor store and Goodyear Tires shop here, just across the highway from the Weis supermarket at Sutton Plaza.
Inside, however, the noise and flurry of this popular shopping center fades away as diners are brought into a serene Mediterranean atmosphere, complete with hanging Turkish lamps and the aroma of spicy meats on the grill.
Restaurateur Sam Khamis, who hails originally from Egypt, created Istanbul’s Turkish & Mediterranean menu with help from Head Chef Mustafa Gelli, an Istanbul native. [Ask Chef Gelli where he is from, and he’ll proudly point out the location of his family home on a large photo mural of the seaside city, which adorns the restaurant’s far wall, above the rear banquets.]
Khamis entered the restaurant business in 2007 with a Turkish partner, who has since left. Today he works with Gelli to update Istanbul’s menu every two years, with special menu items sprinkled throughout the year. He opened Istanbul here following the success of its namesake restaurant in North New Brunswick, in Middlesex County—and after visiting Mount Olive Township and falling for the region’s rural atmosphere.
Real Turkish ingredients can be hard to come by in the United States, so Khamis also opened Taaza Market Place on Rt. 1 in Monmouth Junction, which imports traditional Turkish foods and ingredients to feed both restaurant menus. Having fresh, hand-picked whole foods, which are delivered daily, is part of what makes Turkish and Mediterranean foods unique, he says.
“This food is healthy,” Khamis notes. “It comes right from the ground.”
The cuisine is also in line with modern dining trends. When he opened his first Istanbul in 2009, there were few options for vegetarian dining in the area, Khamis says: “We were the first to offer vegetarian foods in New Brunswick.”
All the fresh meat for Istanbul is also delivered daily; Khamis rents a farm in Pennsylvania, to which livestock are brought for auction. Twice a week he visits to personally pick out the cattle and lambs that will become the week’s dinners. It’s a labor of love. After handpicking the animals, they are sent to a processing plant in Newark, which in turn delivers to the restaurants daily. There is no fresh meat stored at the restaurants. He opened his second Istanbul here in Mount Olive Township after visiting the area and falling for the rural atmosphere.
The other defining element that sets Turkish and Mediterranean cuisine apart from other regions are the myriad of spices used in its dishes. Istanbul regularly uses more than 100 spices in its menu; far too many to mention.
Yet with the rise of popularity of Turkish and Mediterranean tastes since about 2016, many of these flavors are becoming more mainstream here across the United States. As reported in Parade magazine’s year-end food column for 2016, spice giant McCormick declared Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean flavors as “a top trend in their 2017 Flavor Forecast for home cooks.”
McCormick’s Gourmet division even created a home recipe for Turkish Baharat Seasoning, using several of its organic spices, which it notes as “the typical spices of Baharat seasoning: black pepper, cardamom, cloves, cumin, nutmeg, coriander and paprika, plus the addition of mint and cinnamon.”
Istanbul’s menu is a mix of a myriad of such spices combined with fresh whole foods: a plate-pleasing array of hot, spicy dishes countered with cool, refreshing dips and sauces.
Guests can start off with Tavuk Corbasi, a traditional chicken soup, or Ezogelin Corbasi, red lentil soup with bulgur wheat, onion, finely chopped tomato paste, flour, olive oil, and dried crushed mint leaves, both at $4.
Salad dishes include Coban Salatasi, or Shepherd Salad, featuring fresh tomatoes, Kirby cucumbers, onions, parsley, black olives and dressing, at two price points: s small portion at $6 or larger portion at $10. Two other choices are a traditional Mediterranean Salad, made with Fresh lettuce, shredded carrots, red cabbage, topped with feta cheese cucumbers and tomatoes with olive oil and lemon juice dressing; and a new menu item, Pomegranate Salad, made with tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, parsley and walnuts, served with pomegranate sauce; both comes in small and large offerings at $7 and $11, respectively. Adding chicken to any salad is $5 extra, and adding feta to a salad is $2 for a small dish and $3 for a larger plate.
The appetizers feature a long list of cold plates including Hummus, a traditional chickpea dip with lemon juice and olive oil; Baba Ghanoush, a dish of pureed smoked eggplant with tahini, lemon juice, olive oil, and garlic, both priced at $6. Imam Bayildi, eggplants stuffed with onions, garlic, raisins and pine nuts, at $7; Cacik, chopped cucumber blended with garlic, mint, dill and yogurt, at $5; and Red Kidney Bean Stew, which is cooked with olive oil, onion, and lemon juice, and sprinkled with parsley, at $6.
Hot appetizers include Sigara Boregi, four cheese rolls made with rolled filo dough and feta, at $7; Mucver, zucchini pancakes made with feta cheese, dill, flour, egg, and spices, then deep fried and served with garlic yogurt sauce, at $8; and a recent addition, Pacanga Boregi, three pieces of Turkish filo filled with mushrooms, Turkish kasar cheese, pastrami, green pepper, tomatoes, parsley, and herbs, also at $8.
Grilled entrees, served with rice and mixed greens, include Doner, freshly grounded beef and lamb on a turning grill, and Andana Kebab, skewered chopped meat, both at $14; Kuzu Sis, or lamb shish kebab, is made with marinated cubes of grilled lamb, at $18; Hunkar Begendi Lamb features a creamy eggplant puree with mozzarella cheese, at $19; Kuzu Pirzola, a dish of marinated baby lamb chops grilled to serve with rice or vegetables, at $25.
The Istanbul Combination platter is the restaurant’s most popular entrée. It Includes: Kuzu Sis, Adana kebab, Kofte kebab, Chicken kebab and Doner, and is priced at $21 for one person or $29 for two.
Poultry dishes include Tavuk Adana, grilled chopped chicken with fresh red bell peppers and hot peppers, at $13; Chicken Hunkar Begendi, similar to the lamb plate, at $15; and the Chicken Combination platter, with servings of Chicken shish, Chicken Adana, and Chicken chops, at $18.
Seafood dishes are served with Shepherd Salad and rice, and include a salmon plate at $17; a tilapia dish at $16; and Levrek, a grilled Mediterranean-style Branzino, or sea bass; or Cupra, a grilled Mediterranean Orato, or sea bream (a member of the porgies family), both at $24.
Istanbul offers a variety of combination kebabs, priced from $14 for a plate of half Doner and half Chicken Adana, to $24 for a half Chicken Shish/half Lamb Chops platter. A separate Kebob with Yogurt menu section, ranging from $14 to $15 per dish, features a variety of kebabs served atop homemade croutons and topped with garlic and yogurt sauce.
The vegetarian options feature Lahana Sarma, or stuffed cabbage, wherein fresh cabbage leaves are stuffed with rice, currants, pine nuts, dill and parsley; Bamya, or baby okra, baked with fresh tomatoes, onions, green peppers, and served with rice; and Ispanak, spinach sautéed with dill, white onions, garlic and olive oil, then topped with homemade tomato and garlic yogurt sauce, all at $13.
Turkish coffee is an energizing way to end a traditional Mediterranean meal. Served in a tiny Turkish espresso set—a silver cup, saucer, and lid, laden with blue jewels—this traditional brew is made with unfiltered finely ground beans for a strong finish. For the kids, available sodas include imported Uludag Gazoz, better known as Turkish Sprite, as well as Turkish Fanta, both at $2. Diners order from a nice list of American and ethnic beverages, including Turkish tea, homemade lemonade, a variety of fruit juices (cranberry, cherry, apple, orange, mango, and guava), and a traditional yogurt drink, Ayran.
Speaking of children, Istanbul caters to their undeveloped palates with choices of mozzarella sticks, chicken fingers, or Chicken Kebab, all served with french fries, at $7 each.
The restaurant’s banquet hall/party room serves up to 70 people, and Istanbul has hosted events ranging from baby showers and engagement parties to business meetings and milestone events. It recently hosted a surprise 40th birthday party for a local man.
Khamis’s hope for Istanbul’s continued success is to invite Mount Olive Mayor Robert Greenbaum to a long-awaited grand opening event, something he’d done for his original Istanbul eatery in North New Brunswick. That move garnered him “a lot of catering for the mayor,” he says.