79 Elliott St Balmain, NSW 2041
|Opening hours||Wed-Fri 5:00 – 10:00 PM, Sat-Sun 9:00 AM – 3:00 PM 5:00 – 10:00 PM|
|Features||Outdoor seating, Private dining, Bar, Accepts bookings, Gluten-free options, Vegetarian friendly, Licensed, Degustation, Family friendly, Romance-first date, Events|
|Prices||Moderate (mains $20-$40)|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||02 9810 5466|
Turkish people love their food. You can see it in the way they eat, delicately grazing over tables of dips, breads, grills and salads. A sip of raki here, a glass of tea there; then a little more bread is torn, another olive is speared. So how does this relaxed, shared way of eating, evolved over centuries, fit into the ''Western'' entree/main/dessert dining format? It doesn't, really. It's like putting a cat in a corset.
So it's happy news for lovers of Turkish food in Sydney that Somer Sivrioglu has restructured his six year-old restaurant, Efendy in Balmain, to create a more casual mezebar downstairs. Walk through the spacious courtyard scattered with big tables under leafy trees, into the brick-lined, blackboarded, ground-floor room with its loungey atmosphere and lively crowd, and you can feel the happiness. It comes from the diners, the chatty staff, and from Somer himself, a gentle giant of a chef who seems to embody the Turkish spirit of ''keyfi'' (meaning pleasure, cheer, high spirits, generosity - all those things you want in somebody who feeds people for living).
So perch on a stool at a tall barrel, loll back in armchairs at a low coffee table, or sit up, proper-like, at a chunky wooden table and let the food come in waves. The first wave could be the daily-changing meze board ($22 for two) of little bowls of terracotta-toned pomegranate and capsicum hummus, smoky babaghanoush, spicy tomato ezme, house-made labne with dukkah, kisir cracked wheat salad, artichoke and okra, the lot accompanied by warm fluff-puffs of house-made pide. Plump borek pastries filled with pastirma (cured beef) and stringy kashir cheese ($7) are a good mix of crunch and goo. Garlicky, spiced, grilled chicken winglets ($14) might lack the sizzle and scorch you love from a full-powered mangal grill, but they're well spiced and well matched to a tangy mint yoghurt. On the side, a rubbly-nubbly spoon salad of chop-chopped tomato, cucumber, walnut and pomegranate actually tingles on the tongue. It's a great way to eat, grazing from one to the other, because everything is designed to go together.
Upstairs is another story, another night, another ball game. The tables are clothed, the groups smaller, the chairs more comfortable. There are discreet arches with recently inlaid tiles, and a charming balcony overlooking the courtyard. The menu is weighted more to course-after-course than cover-the-table. There are some extraordinary dishes here, such as a rustic, earthy clay pot of roasted deboned sheep's head, tongue and brains ($16), a guaranteed hardcore foodie magnet. Then there's the intriguing-sounding Fish Doctor Stew ($32) - inspired by Melbourne chef Greg Malouf and the Doga Balik restaurant in Istanbul - of bream, garfish and vegetables flavoured with verjuice and apple vinegar, and scented with fenugreek, fennel seeds and turmeric. It's a good showcase for fresh fish, but to me, the velvety roundness of the broth is thrown by either the vinegar or the verjuice. And I'd rather share dishes such as these with others and get a little of everything than a lot of one. Even when it's the kunefemsi dessert ($14), a dense, rich, sweet, syrupy bomb of kunefe cheese, vermicelli-like shredded kunefe pastry and crushed pistachios.
What to drink? It depends. Upstairs, most people stick to wine, from an eclectic mix of Australian labels and a good list of Turkish reds imported by the restaurant. Downstairs it's tektek shots that include a mastika of gin, mastic liquor, lemon and cucumber; Turkish, Lebanese and Greek beers, and, most traditionally of all, raki, an anise-flavoured aperitif available by the glass, carafe and bottle. Yeni Raki, Turkey's oldest brand, comes in its own metal tray in a moat of crushed ice ($7 a glass). With a dash of water, it's deliciously milky but you can feel the kick of alcohol running like a government warning underneath. ''In Turkey, we normally drink this stuff at home,'' says the wine guy. ''Otherwise we get too noisy, we have too much fun.''
My head tells me that upstairs at Efendy is all about upgrading Turkish cuisine into a dining experience nurtured by caring floor staff. My body, however, wants to be downstairs getting too noisy and having too much fun, calling for more raki, more pide bread, more pickles and more grills. If nothing else, two different floors, and two different experiences, make it easy to find your own level.
Best bit Eating Turkish food, Turkish-style.
Worst bit A heavy hand with the oil.
Go-to dish Mezebar meze board of six specials to share, $22.
Terry Durack is chief restaurant critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and senior reviewer for the Good Food Guide. This rating is based on the Good Food Guide scoring system.