Step inside CafÃ© Divan — you’ll find it hard to believe that a restaurant actually occupies this peculiar pie-shaped space. The restaurant’s glass walls literally disappear around you — everything is straight lines and curves, like something out of a Frank Lloyd Wright building plan. The eye soon becomes fatigued following the lines to their vanishing point. And if you sit in the right place, you can see oncoming traffic on Wisconsin Avenue part and move around the restaurant, like water flowing around a rock in a stream. The dÃ©cor is quiet and calming, from the all cherry wood floors and tables to the wood benches running along the length of the windows. Unassuming wall sconces shoot light upwards; as twilight descends the restaurant begins to glow like a Chinese paper lantern.
Since chef Yucel Atalay left Nizam’s in Vienna over a year ago to open CafÃ© Divan in Spring of 2002, the restaurant has become a wonderful showcase for Turkish cuisine, affording the rest of us a taste of Istanbul. If you are uncertain what to order for an appetizer, try a little of everything. The Mezze Appetizer includes dolmas, kezze lentils, hommus, and sigara borek. The dolmas are the best item on the plate — moist and zingy, the fresh grape leaves are packed with sticky white rice spiked with just a touch of vinegar. Kezze lentils are a little more unusual — red lentils pounded into a thick paste, rolled with chopped green onions, parsley, cumin and other spices. The mixture is a little too thick to spread on pita, and is clearly not meant as a dip, so the best means of attack appears to be directly with a fork. Meanwhile, sigara borek — deep fried phyllo dough with a feta cheese center — is too salty.
Hommus at CafÃ© Divan is extraordinary — the velvety smooth blend of garbanzo beans and tahini are not overpowered by the underlying garlic and lemon juice. Smoked eggplant with lemon juice and olive oil is a delicious cooked, chilled mash, but red caviar whipped with olive oil, spices and lemon juice might as well have been salmon cream cheese — pink with a slightly fishy quality.
A soup fashioned from a puree of red lentils and mixed with jasmine rice and fresh tomato sauce is a good starter, with subtle undercurrents of mint and rosemary. A circular, unleavened loaf of pide is placed on each table at the meal’s start. Baked in a brick oven on the premises, it makes for a warm, fresh accompaniment.
When it comes to entrees, lamb is Chef Atalay’s specialty. The dÃ¶ner kabob of lamb and veal, served on a bed of white rice, is presented in a grand procession of meat, roasted bell peppers, and onions across the plate. Unfortunately, the meat lacks flavor and is too thinly sliced, with lamb virtually indistinguishable from the veal. By contrast, the rotisserie lamb — a house specialty only served on Thursdays (yet I was able to get it on a Saturday, so don’t be shy about asking your waiter to see if it’s available), is extraordinary — a butter-tender cut of meat marinated in a robust sauce of cumin, pepper, and lemon juice, before slow-roasting over an open fire.
Manti — pasta stuffed with lean ground beef mixed with spices — is served in a refreshingly light garlic yogurt sauce topped with fresh sauteed tomato and sprinkled with mint. Pide pizzas are a new take on an old standard. Served over a kashar cheese-covered pide and topped with tomato, onions and mushrooms, the shrimp pizza is excellent and a wonderful choice for someone desiring a light but memorable meal. Prepared in a sauce of butter and spices, the fresh shrimp offer a savory contrast to the mellow kashar cheese.
For dessert, Turkish rice pudding is an intriguing variation on a traditional dish. Made from rice flour rather than rice, it’s a smooth, creamy pudding with traces of vanilla. A topping of crushed pistachios lend the pudding a mellow sweetness.
Alternatively, baked pear makes you realize how easy it is to forget the simplest things are sometimes the best. Served in a warm caramelized sugar sauce with a touch of cream at the sides, the juicy pear-half is sweet but not cloying. Definitely try the Turkish coffee here, but be forewarned — it’s not for the weak of heart. An espresso colored syrup, coffee is offered in medium, strong and sweetened, any variation of which is guaranteed to get your pulse racing.