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Merilyn Jackson
Belly Dance
Restaurant Reviews
Konak Turkish Restaurant
United States
Philadelphia, PA

Place Settings - Konak Turkish Restaurant

by Merilyn Jackson
October 24, 2006
Konak Turkish Restaurant
228 Vine Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
(215) 592-1212
I met the love of my life at The Painted Bride Arts Center 32 years ago. At its original location on Philadelphia's South Street — a defunct bridal shop — it grew into a funky art and performance space. A railed gallery overlooked the long narrow room and the fledgling performance artists, musicians, and dancers who experimented there. My love stood behind a podium reading his poetry in front of an audience of 50 on that hot June 14th night. The poem I walked in on was a spoof on an ancient Greek "baseball team." Lemonades was up at bat. I began to laugh even before I took my seat. In the years since, we've attended hundreds of events in all three of The Bride's locations.

In its current and permanent location in Old City, local artist Isaiah Zagar bejeweled the Bride's exterior with mirrors and broken china to lead into the bijou of its interior performance space. Named after Jerry Givnish, one of the Bride's founders, the theater seats about 150. The building also houses an art gallery, administrative offices and a café for receptions, socializing and talkbacks.

To hold down traffic and noise, Old City's neighborhood association strictly controls the amount of restaurant and bar licensing in the area. So, Konak, just next door to the arts venue, is one of only a few eateries north of Market Street. A warm and welcoming space, this Turkish restaurant has a high ceiling and balcony that remind me of the original Painted Bride and the romance I found there.

And, as at the Bride, there is enough music and dancing for a wedding. Large families at table will rise to dance and men dance with each other, often connected by handkerchiefs held high. Roger Mgrdichian plays his oud (bench guitar) and Joe Tayoun handles all the percussion, including the doumbek.

On Friday nights, people come to see the belly dancer, Rena. In flowing chiffon and spangles, she weaves her sinewy, glossy torso among the tables, inviting diners to pop dollars into her hip-riding skirt band.

If you go to her website, www.regalrena.com, you'll see that Rena isn't Middle Eastern at all, but Latina, and only began studying belly dancing a few years ago. But watching her snaky midriff, you'd think she was born to it. Her up-slanted cheekbones, olive-toned skin and minky hair and eyes make her a vision straight out of Arabian Nights.

Diners put their forks down when Rena arrives at their table, but the servers continue to lay plates laden with artichokes, hummus, stuffed grape leaves, roasted peppers, kebabs and of course, eggplant. Just as cabbage is the ubiquitous food in Poland, eggplant is for Turkey and I counted at least a dozen dishes on the menu that feature the purple plant.

Most of what I have eaten at Konak is good to excellent, but Konak's menu needs paring down. Perhaps rotating specials of the lamb and fish dishes would allow the executive chef to focus on them, and give them a chance to live up to the excellence of other dishes. The char-grilled baby lamb chops, for instance, come out tender but gray and unappealing â€" cooked too long at too low a heat when they should be flash-fired on the open grill until caramelized outside and still pink inside. To be an Iron Chef you must not be afraid of flame.

Owner, Ayse Atay, and her mother, the iron-willed chef Melek Basaran, bravely turned this previously not so successful spot into a spacious and raucous patio surrounded by murals that make it look like an atrium in an upper class Turkish home. Its full bar carries any liquor you could want, but keep your request simple. The charming mixologist does not know Malibu Sunrises from Caiparainhas, but does make quite good Martinis and Cosmos.

Instead, order a Turkish wine. Yakut, Kirmizi and Avanos reds (under $35.00 a bottle)and worth buying for the table with the Kirmizi topping my list. If you can't go for the $60.00 bottle of Bogazkere, made from grapes from the Mesopotamian plateau, at least spring for a $12.00 glass of it sometime. It's fig finish goes very well with the lamb kebabs. Of the whites, I adore the Beyaz at $34.75 the bottle. Its slightly coconut aftertaste adds complexity to Basaran's simply stuffed and perfectly grilled salmon.

The restaurant has given the neighborhood a comfortable, yet cosmopolitan spot that doesn't create excess noise and provided a parking lot so residents don't have to put up with annoying "valet" parking that just takes up their own spaces.

The bar fills with neighborhood habitués in late afternoon and early evening. They watch as diners file past to fill the large dining room, and get a bit crowded out once the show next door empties and audience members may carry their art arguments further at the bar or forget about them altogether at the bar's small tables over wine and appetizers, which are the menu's star feature.

With 20 hot and cold starters, you can graze for a couple of hours and never tire of the offerings. I always order a plate or two of everyone's favorite, Sigara Borek. Fillo dough wrapped around a creamy Turkish feta cheese filling and deep-fried, they call it the "Cigar for Non-Smokers." Ezme is a wonderful combination of roasted peppers, garlic and parsley under a swizzle of roasted walnut sauce. Spread on toasted pita triangles, it delivers a suave meld of flavors. Basaran concocted a very good version of the classic stuffed eggplant recipe, Imam Bayildi, (the Priest Fainted). Eggplant soaks up olive oil like foie gras soaks up butter, and one story goes that the priest fainted because his wife bought so much olive oil for her dish. No matter, Konak uses a very good quality olive oil and the dish is not at all greasy.

One of my love's favorites, the Portabella Mushroom, goes on the grill and then gets a topping of tomato sauce, mozzarella and a lovely fresh herb sauce that's a little like a minty pesto. For dessert we like the Kasefe â€" replumped dried apricots with whipped cream and walnuts, kind of like a bridal night aphrodisiac for us.

Next at the Painted Bride: Cuba's Marianela Boan in BoanDanz Action performing False Testimony, November 3, 4. Look for a preview on this site soon.

Konak Turkish Restaurant
228 Vine Street
Phila., PA 19106
(215) 592-1212

PLACE SETTINGS column is © Merilyn Jackson, 2006
Rena Nunez, Belly Dancer

Rena Nunez, Belly Dancer

Photo © & courtesy of Lina Jang Photography, New York

Rena Nunez, Belly Dancer

Rena Nunez, Belly Dancer

Photo © & courtesy of Lina Jang Photography, New York

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