Thursday, August 24, 2006

A Turkish Chef, Playing Hide-and-Seek

August 23, 2006 NYTimes
A Turkish Chef, Playing Hide-and-Seek By FRANK BRUNI

THE best dish I had at Sip Sak, an artfully constructed lamb gyro platter, isn’t on the menu. Neither are the terrific stuffed meatballs, versions of kibbe with beef, pine nuts and mint. Or the outstanding lamb sausage. Or, for that matter, the Turkish pizza, which is really Syrian pizza, made with a thin, soft crust that’s folded over toppings of minced lamb and tomato, so the end product looks more like an omelet or even a burrito.

Why so secretive? Sip Sak’s principal owner and chef, Orhan Yegen, said in a recent telephone conversation that these dishes hinge on fresh ingredients that the kitchen might run out of, or on labor-intensive preparations that can’t always be sustained during busy periods. Since he can’t promise them, he said, he doesn’t put them in writing.

I wonder. His explanation doesn’t cover the sausage, made in advance. It doesn’t address why servers don’t bother to mention these dishes, even when they’re available, unless asked about them directly.

No, I think Mr. Yegen likes to be difficult. He’s one of the New York restaurant scene’s greatest and most befuddling characters, and Sip Sak mirrors his personality. It’s a kooky artist’s warped — and sometimes wonderful — canvas.

Never heard of him? I’ll bet you’ve heard of at least one of his restaurants, because he’s caromed through an insane number, seldom staying long. He helped start Turkish Kitchen back in the early 1990’s. He went on to cook at Efendi, Beyoglu, Deniz, Dervish and Divane, among other restaurants, some long gone.

At some of these places, he would immodestly prime diners for rapture, telling them that they were receiving their first true glimpse of Turkish cooking. (He was born and reared in Turkey.) He’s nothing if not grandiloquent, though age has mellowed him. Now 50, he has moments when his voice is inflected with something that sounds suspiciously like self-effacement.

“I used to say I’m the best food you can eat,” he told me. “These days I can’t say that. I’m not able to catch every mistake anymore.”

Sip Sak opened in 2004 but didn’t take on the contours of a conventional full-service restaurant until this year, when Mr. Yegen erected a bar just inside the entrance, where several cases for prepared food had been. The restaurant’s name, which means fast or instant in Turkish, is pronounced “ship shock.”

Past the bar is a deep, unadorned dining room with sunshine-colored walls. And in that dining room, during a typical lunch or dinner, is a crowd that speaks to why this city maintains such a splendid array of restaurants.

These people, it seems, don’t come to Sip Sak out of ethnic allegiance: few of them look Turkish. They don’t come for an electric scene, which doesn’t exist, or the wine list, which is meager. But they know special food at special prices when they taste it, and they reward its providers. The most expensive dish on Sip Sak’s menu is $17.50.

As you would expect, lamb, eggplant and yogurt reign supreme, but they don’t always assume predictable forms. The lamb gyro platter, called iskander, had at its base a layer of sautéed cubes of pita bread, crunchy outside and spongy within. They swam in garlicky yogurt and tomato sauces. On top went the gyro meat: thin, fatty shavings with real lamb flavor and crisp edges.

Mr. Yegen’s yogurt sauces were lighter, more garlicky and less tart than the ones you find elsewhere, and that’s one reason a dish of handmade manti, a sort of Turkish tortellini, was so sublime. But the dumplings themselves made an important contribution. They were delicate and so tiny that the ground beef in their centers came as a surprise.

I’m convinced that Mr. Yegen performs some incantation as he whisks eggplant, olive oil, garlic and lemon into a silky spread that he calls eggplant salad, because while none of the ingredients are unusual, they attained an astonishing richness and smokiness.

That spread was served with triangular wedges of a bread that was like crunchier, fluffier focaccia. It put the usual pita to shame, and it stood ready to convey the restaurant’s excellent tarama, made with cod roe, and its hummus as well.

Between Sip Sak’s peaks lie many valleys. Lamb kebabs were gorgeous on one visit but grainy on another. Patties of ground chicken with red peppers were moist, but a dish of chicken kebabs was arid. Cubes of baked lamb over an eggplant purée were overcooked, as was a whole branzino.

Stumble across enough of this low ground and you’re not so willing to overlook the unimpressive desserts, the unfilled water glasses and the fact that you’re so much better off if you happen to know about the unadvertised dishes before you show up.

A friend had clued my companions and me in, and Mr. Yegen, his graying ponytail hanging low, stopped by to congratulate us on our savvy. He said he wasn’t really interested in less committed eaters.

“It’s why I never advertise,” he said. “I don’t want all kinds of diners. I want one kind of diner.”

That’s a strange business plan. But if you get to know Mr. Yegen just a little, it’s not a surprising one.



928 Second Avenue (49th Street), East Side; (212) 583-1900.

ATMOSPHERE A plain yellow-walled room with dim lighting, decent space between the 65 seats and room for the eccentric owner, Orhan Yegen, to roam.

SOUND LEVEL Very loud when crowded.

RECOMMENDED DISHES Eggplant salad; hummus; tarama; sucuk (lamb sausage); iskander kebab; manti; spicy chicken patties; stuffed meatballs; lahmajun (pizza).

WINE LIST Only 15 wines in all, 5 of them Turkish and most under $40 a bottle.

PRICE RANGE Appetizers and salads, $4.50 to $13.50. Entrees, $9.50 to $17.50. Desserts, $4.

HOURS Noon to midnight daily. Closed on Sundays in August.

RESERVATIONS Accepted only for parties of six or more.

CREDIT CARDS All major cards.

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS Entrance and dining room on street level; accessible restroom.

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