Sometimes the most gratifying meal, at home or out, is an array of simple appetizers set out so we can graze at will. Spain has its tapas, China its dim sum, and Mexico its antojitos. In the geographical swath from Greece to Iran, a delicious and distinctive range of small plates, served family-style, are fundaments of daily life. In Turkey, the dishes are known as mezes.
Mezes are masterful at Samdan, a Cresskill draw for a dozen years. Six Turkish chefs (one for each meze category) make everything in-house. You will find the universals of Middle Eastern cuisine: pita, stuffed grape leaves, baba ganoush, tabbouleh, roasted fava beans, yogurt with cucumber and dill, kebabs. Turkish cuisine, like that of Greece, its neighbor across the Aegean, centers on lamb, eggplant, olive oil, and grilled fish. But the prevalent tastes of Turkish cooking—peppercorns, paprika, cinnamon, sumac, and cumin—serve as reminders of Turkey’s primacy on the spice routes pioneered by Marco Polo.
Although mezes are available individually for $6-$7.50, the insider M.O. is to go for one of the combination platters, which come in three sizes: five dishes, $16; seven, $22.50; nine, $30. Portions increase along with the price.
You don’t get to pick the dishes, but all three platters include some delicious basics. One is acili ezme, a traditionally Turkish mixture of finely chopped tomato, sweet red and green peppers, onion, and parsley. This bright-tasting blend, eaten with a fork, gets a gentle kick from crushed Turkish maras hot pepper, and a satisfying crunch from chopped walnuts. Samdan’s humus has a fresh, earthy chickpea flavor and a luscious texture.
Best of all were yaprak sarma (rice-stuffed grape leaves). More complex than other Mediterranean versions, these flavorful spheres are enriched with pine nuts and an aromatic Turkish “seven spice” mixture strong on cinnamon.
Samdan’s mezes are augmented by Turkish entrées. Fish—typically striped bass or red snapper—is lightly broiled, deftly seasoned with paprika and lemon juice, and served whole or filleted. Swordfish, Samdan’s most popular fish, is marinated in olive oil, lemon and garlic, charcoal-grilled, and served in juicy chunks on a skewer.
Of the meat dishes we sampled, the most flavorful and tender was sis, charbroiled skewered lamb. Samdan’s moist, delicious lamb doner is marinated in lemon, onions, white pepper, and paprika, then roasted and sliced.
Yogurtlu doner is similar, but marinated in yogurt and lemon. The kitchen browns pita in butter, tops it with the yogurt-marinated lamb, bathes it in a garlicky yogurt dressing and dusts it with paprika. Bring it on! Samdan serves yogurtlu beef and chicken as well, with equally satisfying results.
Friday through Sunday, the chefs prepare istim kebab, Turkish osso buco: lamb shanks braised with eggplant and paprika, baked for five hours, served on a skewer—until the dish sells out, which it usually does.
For dessert, shredded-wheat kadayif is so fine-textured it is almost fudge-like, with distinct flavors of walnut, pistachio, and cinnamon complementing the honey. A velvety, house-made almond pudding, a frequent special, is as elegant as crème brulée.
Still, there are some missteps. Menu disappointments included stingily filled borek (deep-fried phyllo packets enclosing crumbled feta and chopped parsley), undercooked French fries, and inexplicably bland lamb chops.
Although “Samdan” means “candelabra,” the setting is far from seductive: it comprises two boxy, acoustic-ceilinged rooms with frumpy swag curtains and Louis XV chairs that channel a hotel dining room circa 1960.—Karen Tina HarrisonClick here to leave a comment
Cuisine Type:Middle Eastern - Turkish
Ambience:Décor a bit dated and fussy
Service:Knowledgeable, sometimes rushed
Wine list:Familiar French and California vineyards, plus Turkish beer