As we left the Sultan's Table at Costa Mesa, I told my pressed-for-time partner, "I want to come back, but I'll do it at noon, so you won't have to spend another evening."
"No," he protested. "I can find a night."
We both loved this low-key restaurant, tucked back on Newport Boulevard. (Look for the scalloped orange awning.)
The menu described the fare as "authentic Middle Eastern cuisine," and though owner Ginger Simsek, who developed the recipes, is of Turkish descent, the accent is mainly Greek. You need to go several times to realize the full scope, since specials (always a fresh fish, maybe pastitsio, or lamb shanks with rosemary and oregano, or tripe soup) vary from day to day.
The non-Greek Middle Eastern touches appear in the pita bread and cold vegetarian appetizers such as houmus and tobbouleh . The tobbouleh , however, is crunchy with more vegetables and less wheat than most--flavorful with parsley, but no mint. The Greek appetizers include plakie (Great Northern beans cooked with carrots mingled with green pepper, parsley and tomato) and a dip of smoked eggplant blended with tomato, green pepper, yogurt and olive oil. The stuffed grape leaves are my favorite: tart, tightly rolled cylinders with rice, pine nuts parsley, mint, currants and allspice.
You may order these appetizers separately or select a combination of four.
The soup one evening was a richly flavorful spinach; another day, a fiery curried lentil. Occasionally, they do the classic egg-lemon soup. Shepherd's salad is a small, attractively composed combination of tomato, green peppers, onions, cucumber and feta cheese.
The four Middle Eastern specialties may be ordered singly or in combination. I found the stuffed green pepper hot with cayenne pepper but lacking in salt, and I would have preferred less pastry and more spinach-feta cheese in the bourek . More successful were the moussaka with its filo topping, a hint of cinnamon and allspice; and glossy, piquant grape leaves, filled with ground sirloin, a bit of rice, onion and parsley.
Spotlights House Specialty
The rest of the menu spotlights the house specialty, charcoal broiled kebabs, from $7.95 to $9.95, including rice pilaf, vegetables and soup or salad. Or a combination of all the kebabs for $13.95.
My kebabs, made with California lamb marinated in olive oil, were tender and cooked exactly as ordered. Adana koffte kebab, ground sirloin with chopped onions on a skewer, contrasted with its hot taste. Chicken breast marinated in lemon and olive oil proved succulent.
Shawirma , thinly shaved layers of lean, tightly packed ground lamb and beef, skewered and broiled in an upright position, was flavorful with cumin and cayenne pepper. Shawirma becomes an "Alexander the Great kebab" when served with yogurt on a bed of pita bread and topped with hot butter sauce. Alappo kebab is shawirma sliced on pita, with onions and the house red sauce.
The Last Course
Desserts are all made here. The baklava with pistachios and walnuts was good, but the dreamy cinnamon-dusted rice pudding, smooth with rice flour rather than grains of rice, was better. And the pumpkin cheesecake is super-rich; is it middle Eastern? "Costa Mesa," admitted the waitress. Thick, sweet black Turkish coffee can be the perfect end of the meal.
The lunch menu is a lower-priced repeat of dinner, plus shawirma and falafel sandwiches ($3.50).
A few Greek wines, including a retsina supplement the mainly California wine list.
There's a taverna ambiance to the Sultan's Table, with its rough-plastered walls, wood posts and beams. Crisp table cloths topped with glass, fresh flowers and cloth napkins grace each table and booth. Service is warm and informative, with Simsek, husband Mike, and their son and daughter all active in the restaurant. Roberto Ledda is chef.
Sultan's Table, 1576 Newport Blvd., Costa Mesa. Reservations, (714) 645-8560. Open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Tuesday through Friday; from 5 to 10 p.m., Saturday and Sunday. Lunch from $3.50 to $10.95; appetizers from $2.50 to $3.95; full dinners from $6.95 to $13.95. Lot parking. All major credit cards accepted.