The Age April 2012

See the review here.

PRESUMABLY they’re in the manual, the one handed in secret to every restaurateur opening an ostensibly ”ethnic” (horrible word) eatery but who wants to smarten it up in 21st-century clothing.

The tips of modern food presentation, getting on in years but hanging on for dear life – the swipe, the smear, the dust; the ubiquitous trio of something, anything, arranged with geometric precision across a rectangular plate. The sheep in wolf’s clothing of the contemporary dining-out world.

You’ll find them all at Lezzet, a Turkish restaurant that cloaks its peasant soul in modern garb. It’s so much window dressing that doesn’t add anything and detracts only a little from what’s a pretty solid experience. The double shopfront on Brighton Road – triple shopfront, by the time you read this, thanks to the owner’s expansionist tendencies – is a good introduction to the food of the Ottomans that digs a little deeper than the usual dips, grill platters and salads.

Lezzet is an aesthetic mile away from your average brightly lit, laminate Turkish restaurant. It’s dim and moody, with a homeware store’s worth of soft furnishings and tables smartly draped in paper-on-linen. It’s the Turkish answer to the modern French bistro, geographically skewed a couple of thousand kilometres east, with Moorish-style screens and traditional music on the stereo.

When young chef Kemal Barut, whose family hails from Ankara, took over from his former boss six years ago, it was a cosy 16-seater. Now it’s up to 90. Business is brisk, particularly for a place asking diners to shell out significantly more than if they stabbed their finger randomly at the listing for ”Turkish restaurants” in the Yellow Pages.

In such situations it’s helpful to ask yourself if the extra impost is helping the owner pay his interior designer, landlord and personal stylist. If it’s due to a better quality of produce, cooking, wine list and ambience that turns a fuel stop into a meal – well, go for it, I say.

Long on promise and occasionally a little short on delivery, Lezzet nonetheless makes it over the line. You’ll pay for bread here, for example, and although it’s good Turkish bread that comes straight out of the wood oven, it’s at odds with the notion of abundance that comes with this style of eating.

Add a few dollars and that Turkish bread becomes Turkish pizza – fat-based and likeable with toppings including lamb kofta with red onion, sumac and yoghurt, or olives and pastirma, capsicum and spinach.

This is a branch of cuisine that invented the notion of ”sharing, family-style” a couple of millenniums ago. In its native form, the food is simplicity itself. Lentils and grains, capsicum and eggplant, sausages and braised meats: spicy but not overtly spicy. Here, it has been Australian-ised, with the cheffy tricks added but the flavours dialled down for a risk-averse take on the local palate. A couple of decades ago that might have been OK, but in 2012 I think it underestimates the audience. It’s perhaps their biggest mistake.

Some of the starters are so deracinated they could hail from anywhere. Battered calamari comes on an unattractive smear of aioli stained black by squid ink. The mass of calamari tentacles with diced capsicum and stalky dill is tender, although the batter is on the oily side. A trio of mushrooms stuffed with goats’ cheese and feta is padded out with boring old cream cheese but the other principles – finely chopped parsley, dehydrated black olives and pistachio oil – are sound.

I liked the delightfully stodgy – seriously – crab manti. Manti are a sort of pasta dumpling, a bit like tortellini, although, in situ, it would always be filled with ground beef instead of fat little chunks of blue swimmer crab. The yoghurt sauce and warm, oily slick of paprika butter in which the dumplings are coddled is utterly authentic.

For such a young-minded chef, Barut takes an old-fashioned approach to his restaurant, popping out of the kitchen to take the occasional turn on the floor. Some will like the personal touch from the owner and his manager; others will clench their teeth at being asked half- a-dozen times how the meal is.

It’s a shame the Anatolian lamb, the house signature dish, misses the promise of meat so perfectly suited to cooking long and slow. The pieces of shoulder, coated in capsicum paste and cooked overnight, are soft enough but the taste is very subtle, the trad-ern touch of a sticky fig and date syrup the highlight.

But the kitchen does a nice eggplant bechamel that dissolves into a smoky memory in the mouth with layers of roasted vegetables. And the seafood tagine – less Turkish and more north African, with a spice base of cumin, paprika and turmeric and black olive paste – has some nice assertive flavour. The mussels, scallops and chargrilled prawns are great, let down only by the use of Chinese restaurant-style frozen shrimp and gnarly bits of overcooked salmon.

Desserts do their thing for the sweet-oriented Turkish palate. There is an eggy creme brulee – the scorched-sugar top too thick, so it becomes bitter – topped with a birds’ nest of Persian fairy floss. Baklava comes as little individual pies, nuttier and less honeyed than the Greeks would do it.

Apart from a choice of raki that could kill a busload of backpackers, the wine list covers a surprising number of global and Australian bases. It’s one of a few surprises about Lezzet. The smears and their partners in crime might want to take a leaf out of that book – but I guess they’re only as anomalous as ”smart” Turkish cooking once seemed.

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