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Venue Review: Cafe Baklava

Cafe Baklava's tasty mezze are the stars
Cafe Baklava
By "Aleta Watson"

Long before small plates became an American restaurant phenomenon, Turks were grazing their way through little portions of this and that known as mezze. Hummus and dolmas, popular throughout the region, are perhaps the most familiar examples of these tasty tidbits for many of us.
At Cafe Baklava in downtown Mountain View, mezze are the highlight of any meal. Made fresh in-house, the savory dishes sing with surprising flavors, from the lemony undertones of the silken hummus ($4.50) to the tangy goat cheese, walnuts and red peppers of the irresistible cevizli peynir ($5.95). Although most diners treat them as appetizers, they could easily make a meal with the crunchy Greek salad dressed with lemon juice and olive oil ($6.95).
Iliano Yuksel brings the flavors of his homeland to the tightly packed little restaurant on Castro Street, where the open kitchen takes center stage. He emigrated from Turkey six years ago and worked in Bay Area restaurants before opening his own place in February last year. The recipes come from his mother, and everything, with the exception of pita bread, is made on-site.

A good time

All 34 seats inside were full when my companions and I arrived without a reservation on a weeknight. Yuksel greeted us on the sidewalk as we were scanning the menu and offered one of the outside tables under heat lamps on a patio carved out of a couple of parking spaces set off from the passing traffic by planter boxes. When we demurred, put off by the chilly breeze, he promised a spot inside in a few minutes.
Inside, the restaurant buzzed with conversation. Diners sat knee to knee at tables draped with white cloths and topped with paper. Dozens of bottles of opened wine were crowded onto on a sideboard. More were tucked into racks lining the half wall dividing the kitchen from the dining room.
While we studied the menu, we swished chunks of pita in Cafe Baklava's trademark dip, trying to parse the flavors. Could it be a puree of fava beans or peas? No, it's avocado seasoned with onions and thinned with white wine vinaigrette -- Yukel's flavorful invention.
All signs pointed to a good time. Not even our inept young server could spoil the mood. She was smiling and friendly but she confused our wine order, then didn't deliver the glasses of Casa Lapostolle sauvignon blanc ($6) and Robert Mondavi fume blanc ($6.50) until we asked about them, midway through our first course. A bottle of Efes Pilsen ($4.50), a light Turkish beer, didn't materialize until we were well into our entrees.
Other servers appeared more competent, however. One stopped to explain a dish that our server couldn't. And Yuksel stepped in to replace a knife my companion had dropped before she had a chance to request a fresh one.
For newcomers to Turkish food, the mezze platter ($10.95 for four people) is an excellent introduction. Generous portions of hummus, cevizli peynir, fresh-tasting dolmas, the smoky eggplant puree known as baba ghanoush, a tabbouleh heavier on bulgur than parsley, and Kalamata olives share the plate with zippy, light falafel balls. Sigara boregi ($4.50), crisp deep-fried rolls of a flaky house-made phyllo (known in Turkish as yufka) stuffed with feta cheese, are another delicious choice. But midye tava ($7), fresh mussels dipped in egg and flour then deep fried, were rubbery and had very little taste.

Desserts uneven

Among entrees, the marinated kebabs from the charcoal grill are most appealing. The combo ($15.95) delivers well-seasoned chunks of moist chicken, tender lamb, and a very spicy ground beef mixture over a bed of saffron rice with grilled zucchini, red pepper and cauliflower. Each of the meats also is available as a separate entree plate ($10.95-$12.95). The lamb, cooked just past rare, gets my vote for its deep flavor.
Three traditional entrees, which sounded so appetizing on the menu, were one-dimensional. Vegetarian moussaka ($8.95), cloaked in tomato sauce, was hearty but lacked the flavor and textural contrasts that make a good dish. Karniyarik ($9.95), a whole baked eggplant, stuffed with a ground beef mixture, wasn't much more interesting. Manti ($9.95), a Turkish ravioli, was as beautiful as an abstract painting with its tangy yogurt sauce and orange drizzle of garlic butter sauce, but we soon tired of the soft texture.
For dessert, there's a wide choice of traditional sweets as well as the usual chocolate and tiramisu. These, too, were uneven. Quinces, a fruit similar to an apple, poached in a sugar syrup and served with two small scoops of vanilla ice cream ($6.95) were dull, and kunefe ($5.95) -- layers of shredded phyllo baked with cheese and syrup -- was burned on the edges at dinner.
Far better were the sutlac ($4.95), a chilled pudding made with arborio rice, and the eponymous baklava ($5.95) we sampled at a later lunch, when the service was attentive and efficient. Lighter and less sweet than the syrup-soaked Greek version, this baklava emphasized the layers of paper-thin housemade phyllo and a lightly sweetened filling of ground pistachios.
Mezze alone are a good reason to dine at Cafe Baklava, but the kebabs and baklava seal the deal.

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Sunday, June 11, 2006 - Aleta Watson

Mezze, Turkey's tasty tidbits, are the star at this small Mountain View restaurant, where owner Iliano Yuksel serves dishes made from his mother's recipes. (Aleta Watson, Mercury News)

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