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Saray Turkish Restaurant

Middle Eastern cuisine at its finest
By ROBERT NADEAU  |  September 16, 2009
3.0 3.0 Stars

FRUITY FRESH Pasha Salmon Leaves — chunks of farmed salmon wrapped in grape leaves and grilled — is a knockout.

Saray Turkish Restaurant | 1098 Comm Ave, Allston | 617.383.6651 | Open daily, 11 am–11 pm | MC, VI | No liquor | Sidewalk-level access | No valet parking
Saray snuck in under my radar because the sign outside advertised halal meat. I thought that would limit the cuisine. Wrong, wrong, wrong. This modest storefront conceals a full-tilt Turkish restaurant with some remarkable and reasonably priced food. For the remaining few days of Ramadan, make sure to get in before sunset, when halal customers can't eat. After dark (and after September 19), the restaurant is sure to be packed.

The overall terrific selection at Saray starts with a whole-wheat sesame flatbread, leavened and domed, so it is almost a double bun. (Accompany it with a pour of olive oil with hot peppers and herbs.) We then saved time on appetizers by ordering hot and cold assortments ($14.95). The hot one includes three fresh-fried cheese rolls ($5.95/à la carte) that are as close to fried-dough ecstasy as you can get while still pretending to eat real food. Turkish hot hummus ($5.95) is as hot as falafel and served with pine nuts. Grilled pastrami ($7.95) is meatier and less peppery than the American version. And mucver ($5.95) are zucchini pancakes with garlic-yogurt sauce. (This, presumably, is why we never hear about an overgrown-zucchini problem in Turkey.)

On the cold side are ice cream scoops of everything: lemony, excellent cold hummus ($4/à la carte); eggplant salad ($4.50) with onions like my father used to make; baba ghanoosh ($4.50) with a real taste of the flame; spinach tarator ($4) with yogurt cheese and serious garlic; zaziki (better known as tsatsiki to Greek patrons) with cucumbers, yogurt and dill; and muhammara ($4) with shredded peppers and walnuts, but not a paste as the Armenians make it. What else? Well, white-bean salad ($5.95/large; $7.95/absurd) pumped up by red onions and plum tomatoes.

The two absolute knockouts among the entrées were Sultan Delight ($14.95) and Pasha Salmon Leaves ($15.95). The Sultan, like all Turkish culinary masters, delights in eggplant, but this is mashed with cheese for remarkable flavor, and topped with five chunks of fresh lamb kebab, four pretty slices of bell pepper, and a wisp of tomato sauce. The chunks of rich farmed salmon are wrapped in grape leaves and grilled, so the aroma of the grape leaves is there even where they are burned off, while the fish chunks are exquisitely juicy. A double portion of real Turkish rice (firm medium-long grain) and a side of pickled red cabbage round out the plate.

In order to check the other kebabs, we resorted to the Vali Kebab platter ($16.95), an anthology including a fabulous adana kebab, a mixture of lamb-burger, red bell peppers, and paprika formed into a long tube. You could order the adana kebab à la carte ($13.95), but then you'd miss the meatball kebab ($12.95) — a kind of patty of lamb, salt, and garlic — plus the two lamb chops and four triangles of homemade lahmacun (meat on flatbread like the Armenian lamejun). The platter also brings two fine chunks each of a tender chicken kebab ($12.95) and regular lamb shish kebab ($14.95), as well as salad, rice, and pickled cabbage.

Another key kebab is the Iskender ($13.95), which is a lot of doner kebab with croutons and tomato sauce. What's doner kebab ($12.95)? Well, it's cooked on a vertical rotisserie as would be used for a gyros or shwarma, though the version here uses slices of marinated lamb and beef. Saray also does right by three meaty cabbage rolls ($12.95), served a little loose with both tomato and yogurt sauce. To really get at the creamy tomato sauce, you need something like the veggie casserole ($12.95), which is just carrots, green beans, and potatoes cooked in that tomato sauce for a long time. (I know potatoes over rice is not everyone's idea of heaven, but indulge me.)

I did find one weak dish, which was nearly the most expensive on the menu: grilled striped bass ($17.95). It's clearly a substitute for a Mediterranean sea bass, like a bronzini, and since the commercial season for striped bass in New England is short, I was afraid it would be Chilean sea bass — a great fish with an unsustainable fishery. Nope, Saray is ethically and nutritionally sound, but culinarily weak with a farmed striped bass. You're presented with a whole fish, marinated and grilled, which somewhat disguises its mediocre flavor.

A halal restaurant will not serve alcoholic beverages, so Saray's most interesting choices are packaged Turkish drinks. A yogurt drink ($2.50) was the most refreshing, like a milder salty lassi. Ülker ($2), a brand of Turkish soda, tasted like a drier version of Sprite. And a so-called Special Carrot Drink ($2.50), made from purple carrots and a few turnips, tasted like beet vinegar. It comes in sweet or spicy; I ordered spicy, but am pretty sure I got sweet (which was sour but not peppery). It's a hot weather drink, at best. Turkish coffee ($4), however, is the real deal — the original energy drink — with so much mud at the bottom we couldn't even use it for fortunetelling.

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