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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

Way Izmir

August 29, 1996|MAX JACOBSON

"Turkish is the world's second most important cuisine," says Esin Denktash with pride, laying out a huge spread of hot and cold appetizers, "after Chinese."

Bold words, and Eurocentrics will cry, "What of France? What of Italy?" But they can't deny that the cuisine of the Ottoman Empire powerfully influenced a large swath of the world, from North Africa to Central Asia, including the Balkans and the Caucasus along the way.

Denktash has a particularly broad view of her homeland's cuisine. She's from Izmir, a once mostly Greek-speaking city on Turkey's Mediterranean coast. She learned to cook in a home with a Turkish father and a mother who spoke Arabic, as many people still do in the far south of Turkey.

Adding to the cultural mix is the fact that her husband, Erdem, is a Turkish Cypriot. Together, the two run Tosh's Mediterranean, a comfortable Huntington Beach salon full of decorative brassware and Turkish travel posters that is the Southland's only flat-out Turkish restaurant.

Back to those hot and cold appetizers. The Denktashes recently added more than two dozen items to their menu, and the appetizer list alone now numbers 33. For example, take the cold combination appetizer plate: dolma, baba ghannouj, hummus, kisir, mucver and barbunya.

The first four--grape leaves (with an all-meat stuffing), eggplant dip, garbanzo dip and the rather wheaty Turkish version of tabbouleh--are fairly familiar. But you won't find mucver anywhere else. These are delicately eggy zucchini fritters, not much bigger than Ping-Pong balls. Barbunya is a delicious stew of kidney beans with tomatoes, garlic, carrots, bell peppers and onions.

Then there are ezme and ceviz ezmesi, made to be eaten with the sesame-crusted Turkish flat bread known as pide (not to be confused with pita; these rather puffy loaves are rectangular). Ezme is a minced salad of cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, parsley and mint, plus a fiery snootful of cayenne. Ceviz ezmesi--which also has a Syrian name, muhammara--is another hot one: walnuts crushed with bread crumbs, hot pepper and olive oil. It looks like mortar but tastes like a rich, pungent, grown-up party dip. If you don't want anything so spicy, pirasa is stewed leeks and carrots served cold in a light vinaigrette--what a French chef might call leeks a la Grecque.

Among the hot appetizers, sigara borek are flaky little filo pastry cigars stuffed with a light, creamy farmer-style cheese. Yogurtlu patlican kizartma (don't worry, you can just point to the name on the menu) is fried eggplant and bell peppers blanketed with a sauce based on homemade yogurt. Esin Denktash also makes great kibbeh (icli kofte in Turkish)--little deep-fried globes of a lamb and bulgur paste stuffed with pine nuts and sweetly spiced minced lamb. In the seafood appetizer category, gumus balik ("silver fish") are fried smelts, and garides tava is a sort of Eastern Mediterranean version of shrimp scampi.

The entree list is dominated by kebabs, most of them much like the ones you get at other Middle Eastern restaurants, but there are a couple of unique variations. Adana kebab, a specialty of southern Turkey, is a spicy foot-long kebab of ground beef seasoned with onions, peppers and mint, served sizzling on the skewer.

Doner kebab Iskender, like the Greek gyro, is slices of meat hewn from a giant revolving mass browning on a vertical electric spit. But instead of being served sandwich-style in pita, as gyros are usually sold on the street, the meat comes on top of a pita that has been grilled and then doused in yogurt sauce.

Non-kebab entrees include nohut etli, a hearty lamb and garbanzo stew, served on a mound of fluffy basmati rice, and kuru fasulye tavuklu, a simple saute of chicken and green beans. It's as unpretentious as a potluck dish.

Tosh's began as a bakery, and the kitchen still makes its own pastries daily. The tiny baklavas are soft, multilayered and honey-rich, wonderfully moist and filled with pistachios in the Turkish manner, rather than almonds or walnuts. Revani is a rich cake dripping with syrup, the perfect companion for a muddy demitasse of authentic Turkish coffee.

And that's the kind of coffee to order here. It's at least the world's second most important coffee: The Chinese aren't even in the running, coffee-wise.

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Where to Go

Tosh's Mediterranean, 16871 Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach; (714) 842-3315. Open for lunch and dinner 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Full bar. Parking lot. All major credit cards. Takeout. Dinner for two, $23-$36.

What to Get

Ezme, muhammara, sigara borek, Adana kebab, revani, Turkish coffee.

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