Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Review: Pera Mediterranean Brasserie

Pera Mediterranean Brasserie
303 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10017
(212) 878-6301

With dangerously high expectations, my heart was racing as I stepped into the soaring, elegant main room at Pera, the new Turkish grill restaurant in the shadow of Grand Central Station. An avid fan of sister-restaurant Kösebasi in Istanbul, widely considered the definitive modern Anatolian grill restaurant in Turkey, I was thrilled at the prospect of eating so well in my new backyard of Manhattan. But is it really possible to recreate such unique tastes and dishes in an entirely different part of the world? And given that Pera bills itself as a “Mediterranean brasserie” instead of a “grill restaurant” like its elder cousin, will the chef adapt the cuisine to our American expectations (shudder) or simply show us the way it is meant to be?

My impression is somewhere in between, but happily it seems not much has changed. We order the tasting menu ($46 each), the closest approximation to the Kösebasi experience. Discrete, elegant waiters begin immediately to flood our table with meze (small-plate appetizers) such as variations on whipped-eggplant caviar , cacik (spiced yogurt), hummus, and gavurdagi (cold salad of tomato and pomegranate juice). These are standard Turkish fair, well executed, and they set the stage beautifully for Pera’s specialty: grilled meat, and lamb in particular. Clearly pleased so far with the meal, I turn to the nearly invisible waiter and explain, “I have eaten many times at Kösebasi in Istanbul and have been waiting impatiently to eat this food in America.” He beams.

Next come kebaps, steaming, arranged like sushi on a smooth platter. Not drowned in sauces, but seared beautifully over an open flame as delicately as pieces of tuna, and served naked with only paper-thin bread sheets reminiscent of mushu pork wrappers. The meat flavors shine through with hints of smoke and explosions of spice. Miniature meat-pizza-like concoctions called pidette – which have an interesting but odd taste that reminds some diners of old beef– are noticeably “softened” in flavor for the American palette. The minced-meat adana kebap, on the other hand, is every bit the original: crispy and soft at the same time, packed with flavor and bursting with spice. Golden nuggets of grilled chicken are simultaneously so crispy and soft that I don’t even realize what I am eating. Clearly, someone here has grilling down to an art. The flavors are so subtle that even a dry white wine (Sancerre in this case) pairs beautifully with the lamb.

A second visit revels some inconsistencies in service, with a less knowledgeable waiter who has little patience for our group of five. It is quite a chore to order the tasting menu for all but one person. This time we perk up the meal with several glasses of raki, the classic Turkish anise-flavored grape brandy. Despite the less polished service and the ordering issue, my impression is the same: this is a great meal, and a special restaurant.

Bottom line: Discover what lamb can become in the hands of a skilled Turk. And bring a date, because the restaurant is beautiful. Pera could work equally well for a business dinner towards the front of the restaurant, which feels grander than the more romantic rear corners near the open kitchen.

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