Around 1992, six years after he'd left his native Istanbul for Chicago, Metin Kurtulus was working as a waiter at the Italian Village, and customers were always asking him where he was from. "They would ask where to have good Turkish food," he recalls with a smile. "But I was embarrassed. What some Middle Eastern restaurants called Turkish dishes were not real--they're cheaply put together to make a quick buck. Those were not the dishes originated in sultan's palaces or like the humbler ones my mother used to cook."
Last March, reasoning that more than a decade of apprenticeship in the food trade had prepared him for the arduous task of shepherding a restaurant into existence--and determined to prove Turkey's rightful place at the top of the culinary pantheon--Kurtulus, his brother Necati, and two friends converted a shoe store on Lincoln just south of Belmont into an eatery called A la Turka.
"Turkish food is healthy," Kurtulus proudly declares. "We use more vegetables, fruits, and spices than any other Mediterranean country. And our taste is refined. We pound or slice the meat, only rarely serving it in big chunks, like the Greeks do." He bristles at the thought of the Turkish dishes being served in Greektown. "Dolma is a Turkish word for stuffed, and doner means cooking on a rod. So when you look at a Greek menu, you'll see a lot of stuff that the Greeks borrowed from us," he says, betraying the centuries-old enmity between the neighboring countries.
Turkish cuisine owes its variety to the country's geography--a wedge straddling Europe and Asia. Most ingredients came directly from the hilly slopes overlooking the Aegean Sea. Kurtulus rattles off a list: "Eggplant, spinach, tomato, leek, all sorts of peppers and beans." Spices like oregano and cinnamon were brought back from the Far East via southern Europe by the returning heroes of the Ottoman Empire. At one point the Turks even occupied Vienna, transforming rough-hewn Germanic cooking into something far more palatable.
Kurtulus says his family originally came from Macedonia and Bosnia, Muslims who retained ties with Turkey through religion. In the late 40s, shortly after the communists took over Yugoslavia, his parents fled to Istanbul. His father, who first worked as a health inspector, then as a grade-school teacher, took on a new surname, Kurtulus, which means "freedom." Kurtulus remembers spending a lot of time in the kitchen watching his mother in action. "The smells, the way she cut the vegetables, how she carefully put meat into the oven--I learned to appreciate the amount of work needed for a good meal."
His older sister was the first to move to America, settling down in Chicago and marrying an Albanian. His older brother soon followed, taking a job at the Italian Village. In 1986 the 22-year-old Kurtulus, not wanting to join the Turkish army, decided America was where he wanted to be too. He and Necati arrived within a month of each other and also found work at the restaurant. Necati soon quit, but Kurtulus stayed in the business, climbing up the ladder to captain at La Strada.
Last summer Kurtulus hired Kurtulus Serpin, a chef from Cafe Istanbul and a veteran of Turkish kitchens in Kuwait, Germany, and New York City who was trained at a culinary institute in Istanbul. (That they share a name is simply coincidence.) Together the two revamped A la Turka's menu--which had featured over 50 appetizers and entrees-- to "make it more accessible to Americans," says Kurtulus. They added several of Serpin's specialities, like kiymali elma (baked apple stuffed with ground beef, cracked wheat, mushrooms, and tomatoes, $12), pilic topkapi (baked Cornish hen stuffed with rice, currant, and pine nuts, $14.50), and zeytinyagli pirasa (sauteed leeks with rice and carrots, $4.25), a cold appetizer. And they kept one of the national dishes, manti (pasta stuffed with ground beef served in garlic-yogurt sauce, $11.50), as well as lahmacun, sort of a Turkish pizza ($3), and arnavut cigeri (fried calf's liver and potatoes, $5.75), a hot appetizer. For those who insist on kabobs, A la Turka still serves a nice selection cooked the Turkish way. "We use traditional Turkish cookware," Kurtulus says. "And I shop every afternoon for the most fresh produce and meat."
Kurtulus says that after a rocky start A la Turka is staying afloat and may even make money in the long haul. Just as important, he says, is the liquor license he got a couple of months ago. He's mostly offering Turkish wines, pressed from grapes grown near the Aegean seashore and in Anatolia. "They compare to bordeaux and burgundy, I think," he says. "We drink them with every meal in Turkey, just like the Italians and the French. I want to show Americans that my old country is just as fascinating and civilized."
A la Turka, 3134 N. Lincoln (773-935-6447), is open 11 to 10 Tuesday through Thursday, and 11 to 11 Friday through Sunday. --Ted Shen
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by Eugene Zakusilo.