Photo Credit: Caroline Elliott
HIDEAWAY: There’s a bit in Douglas Adams’ novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in which a set of development plans are described as being on public view “in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying “Beware of the Leopard.” It came to mind with regard to Cafe Istanbul (430 E. Clayton St., 706-850-6444), a wonderful but somewhat challenging Turkish restaurant in downtown Athens.
Despite its fairly good location (between Utage and Jerzee’s) and the fact that it offers something new to the city, very few people I’ve mentioned it to have heard of it or realize that it’s open. The posted hours aren’t always adhered to, the dark exterior often makes it appear to be closed, the presence of a “now hiring” sign on the door gives the impression that it’s not actually doing business yet, and you may even encounter a large German shepherd tied to the railing out front. Persevere. The interior is pleasant, the people lovely and the food wonderful.
The restaurant is the fourth of its name, joining branches in Decatur, Kennesaw and Alpharetta that have been operating for years. Some of its menu is more generically Mediterranean, but some of it is not. All of it is delicious. Various kebabs and other grilled dishes (e.g., kofte, or beef-based meatballs) are beautifully executed, tender and full of flavor. Anything that comes with cacik (tzatziki sauce by another name: a mixture of cucumbers, yogurt, garlic and mint) is worth ordering, or you can get a dish of it separately, from the appetizer section, served with soft flatbread that is a bit less doughy than pita.
If you are vegetarian, there is much to please you. A dish labeled “Tim Veg Special” consists of chickpeas sautéed with silky spinach and onions, served with cacik and rice, and is perfectly satisfying without animal protein. Better still is the eggplant salat, which transforms the difficult, fickle vegetable into a marvelous goo that is smoky, acidic and addictive. It is one of the best things to eat in our entire city, and it will run you a grand total of $4. The hummus is good. The simple side salad is nicely dressed. The sigara boregi (phyllo cigars stuffed with feta and fried) are less impressive, a rare weak spot of sogginess.
Don’t overlook the “pizza” section of the menu. The pies may come in a classic red-and-white box, but they are thin and interesting, with toppings including lamb, feta, spinach and garlic. I would much rather eat them than any number of more traditional pizzas. Whether or not you order baklava, you will get a square or two of it at the end of your meal, presented in the spirit of hospitality. Rather than a sickly sweet, dense square, it is light, flaky and delicately incorporates both honey and pistachios.
Cafe Istanbul is theoretically open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday, plus dinner on Sunday and late nights some nights, but it’s a good idea to call ahead for the time being. It has a full bar and manages to balance a number of TVs tuned to ESPN with murals of traditional Turkish life.
TREAT: Veronica’s Sweet Spot (159 Oneta St., 706-247-0421) is open toward the Cotton Press or northeastern side of the Chase Park warehouses, and it is adorable. Not only can you get a nice Jittery Joe’s coffee or tea drink, choosing from the big menu chalked on the board (and perhaps a squirt of a fancy syrup), but you can also treat yourself to pastries from Independent Baking Co. (croissants, morning rolls, other viennoiserie, macaroons) and/or Sweetie Pie by Savie (scones, cookies, sweet breads), a piece of fruit, a cup of yogurt, a package of hummus and crackers, some cheese, a bit of sliced salami, a fancy granola bar or a San Pellegrino limonata.
Need some tealight candles? A new book to read? Some incense? A couch to crash on while your child takes a class at Canopy? Some local art for your walls? A sympathetic ear? Veronica’s has all this and more, packed into a tiny but appealing space that is full of personality and supplies something badly needed for its building: namely, nourishment. It’s open 9 a.m.–6 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 9 a.m.–9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Sunday.