Turkish With a Twist:
Soho Garage Revs Up Kitchen
A dark-haired woman of a certain age, muffled up to the chin in a black coat, took a seat by herself at a small table near the bar.
“You need a glass of wine,” said the manager. “In red, we have Spanish, Portuguese, French, Turkish …. “
“I’ll have the Turkish,” she said.
He brought over a thick tumbler of red wine and a bowl of olives. The woman kept her coat on as she drank her wine in silence and surveyed the dimly lit room, which was packed with antiques, Turkish carpets and bric-á-brac. There was an air of mystery about her; she could have been a spy in a 1930′s thriller set in Istanbul, waiting for Sidney Greenstreet to come out from the back with a coded message tucked into his silver cigarette case.
Antique Garage, which opened on Mercer Street last month, is one of the most intriguing (and engaging) restaurants I’ve been to in a while. It used to be a Soho automobile-repair shop. Then Utku Cinel, a Turkish-born dealer in textiles and antiques, opened a store on the premises. He began offering wine to customers and eventually decided to turn the place into a full-fledged restaurant, serving Turkish meze, along with a few main-course specials of the day.
Now, instead of automobiles on lifts, mismatched crystal chandeliers hang from the garage ceiling, and the bare brick walls are decorated with old mirrors, gas lamps and an eccentric collection of paintings that ranges from Byzantine Christ figures and French landscapes to stern early 19th-century portraits of local New England worthies. The tables are set with candles in various kinds of cut-glass holders, silver cutlery, old salt and pepper shakers and china. Everything, even the tables, is for sale.
“How are you, darling?” asked the blond man dressed in black who took my coat at the door and also acts as a waiter. “Where would you like to sit? On the sofa? At one of the long dining tables? Or how about upstairs?”
A carved wooden staircase leads up to an intimate red mezzanine in the back, but, instead, we opted for a table by the bar (which is from Harlem, dating from Prohibition, and is not for sale). Behind it is a white-tiled open kitchen. A man in a striped sweater sitting on one of the bar stools was giving a detailed recipe to one of the cooks. Later, I realized that he was the chef, Christopher Anthony Tavares, who also acts as host and general manager, chatting with the customers, who sooner or later end up chatting with each other. And I even like the music, John Coltrane instead of the nonstop thumping disco that is played in so many restaurants these days.
The best part of a Middle Eastern meal, as far as I’m concerned, is the meze, the selection of little dishes served before the main course (or to accompany drinks at any time of day). And this holds true at Antique Garage. You can begin with the traditional dish sometimes called “poor man’s caviar,” a delicate, smoky purée made from eggplant that has been charred over a flame and skinned, the flesh mixed with olive oil, garlic and lemon juice. Taramasalata, made with salted cod’s roe, was creamy and pungent. Hummus, the chickpea spread, would have been better at room temperature instead of chilled, but it came with hot triangles of fried pita bread sprinkled with sea salt. Borek, filo pastry stuffed with feta and deep-fried, were shaped like cigars instead of the more common half moons, and were crisp and greaseless.
The meze concept at Antique Garage has been broadened to include nontraditional dishes such as black mussels, which was one of the best things on the menu. The mussels are simmered in white wine and served out of their shells, tossed in a light pesto cream with charred tomatoes and Tuscan peasant bread on the side. Calamari, deep-fried in a tempura-like batter and served with a dipping sauce seasoned with garlic and olive oil, is elevated above its usual status of bar food. The octopus, tender chunks marinated in red-wine vinegar with oregano and olive oil, was also very good.
A powerfully salty black-olive tapenade, topped with strips of anchovies and served on peasant bread with caperberries, will get you knocking back another round of drinks in no time (as of now, the restaurant just serves a small selection of wine and beer, but hopes to get a full license in a couple of months).
There were two clunkers on the menu. Pan-seared scallops just this side of raw arrived on a bed of gummy mushroom risotto encircled by an acrid red-wine sauce. (When our waiter asked how we liked this dish, I told him. He whisked it away at once and took the price off the bill.) And the lamb shank was stringy and bland. I’d rather have a good shish kebab.
But I loved the lamb pizzette, which was topped with thin slices of meat on a light pizza dough with beets and crumbled goat cheese, an interesting play of sweet and salty. According to the chef, however, this dish has turned out to be too esoteric for many customers, so he’s replaced the topping with prosciutto, black olives, tomatoes, arugula and gorgonzola instead. Your call.
There is only one dessert on the menu, baklava. Baklava is one of the great Middle Eastern pastries, but the versions found in the West are often a travesty-cloyingly sweet and heavy and made with poor ingredients. Don’t pass up the baklava at Antique Garage. You get a plate of small pieces, loaded with pistachios and infused with just the right amount of honey.
At the end of the meal, the waiter came over and put an engraved silver cigarette case down on the table. I opened it up. Inside, there was no coded message from Sidney Greenstreet, alas-just the bill.
“We never know quite when we’re going to close each night,” said the chef over the phone when I asked him for the restaurant’s hours. “But people stick around and it ends up being quite late.”
I’m not surprised. Having dinner at Antique Garage is like being at a large house party where guests stay up into the wee hours.