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A Taste of Heaven

Serving top-notch Turkish cuisine colorful surroundings, Anatolia offers Nashville a new, notable dining experience




48 White Bridge Rd. 356-1556.

Lunch: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mon.-Sat.; noon-3 p.m. Sun. Dinner: 5-10 p.m. Sun.-Thurs.; 5-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat.

“It is like a piece of heaven on earth,” restaurateur Huseyin Ustunkaya said of Antalya, the seaside city in the Turkish region of Anatolia where he grew up. Our table of 10 nodded as if we knew just what he was talking about, though none of us had ever been anywhere remotely close to Antalya. But as we lingered over demitasse cups of strong Turkish coffee, drained the red Turkish wine from our glasses, spooned the last bit of creamy rice pudding from its bowl, and availed ourselves of the remaining honeyed morsels of baklava, we felt as if we also had found a piece of heaven on earth—not in Turkey, but in Anatolia, the two-month old restaurant opened by Huseyin and his brother Harun in West Nashville.

Also known as Asia Minor, Anatolia is in the northeastern portion of Turkey, where Europe and Asia meet; one of the oldest continuously habitated regions in the world, it has for thousands of years served as a battleground for foreign powers. As one Web site about the region poetically puts it, “Anatolia is both home and highway for a bewildering variety of peoples.”

Not so bewildering a variety of peoples was in evidence on the weeknight we visited Anatolia, located on White Bridge Road just outside the border of the sovereign province of Belle Meade. That is pretty much how the Ustunkayas planned it. “There are very few Turkish families in Nashville,” Huseyin says. “We did not open Anatolia just for Turkish people; we wanted to introduce our food to Nashville people.”

Nashville’s recent and fairly short history of ethnic restaurants can almost exclusively be traced to the areas of town where immigrants tend to settle: Nolensville Road, Murfreesboro Road and Charlotte Pike. Many of the restaurants that have opened here in the last 10 years or so begin as small markets to serve their fellow countrymen and -women. A couple of tables eventually transform into a dining area, a few dishes become a menu, and another new Mexican or Vietnamese or Middle Eastern or African restaurant takes root in Nashville. It’s a story being told in small cities all over the South and Midwest.

The Ustunkaya brothers are rewriting that story, calling upon their upbringing in a tourist-heavy resort city and their professional background in the hospitality industry to create a genuine but upscale ethnic dining experience. Anatolia makes every effort to provide customers with an out-of-strip-center environment, despite its location in a former Box Works store in Lion’s Head Village. Sheer curtains shield diners from the busy parking lot outside; tables are aligned so that sight lines tend inward, rather than outward, and the decor is subdued yet eye-catching. One wall carries a locally painted mural depicting four different regions of Anatolia, which Huseyin will elaborate upon if asked. (He works the front of the house, while Harun is in charge of the kitchen.) Horizontally hung dowels—a left-behind feature of the packaging store—provide shelves for wine bottles, as well as hanging rods for textiles and woven items such as tiny, colorful mittens and socks. A gorgeous backgammon set sits on one shelf beside the entrance, and what Turkish restaurant would be complete without the Nazar Boncugu, the evil-eye bead of azure-blue and turquoise that is believed to reflect evil and protect the wearer? The carpet and the walls are pale beige, a neutral backdrop for the richly hued cherry wood tables and chairs.

Since opening, the brothers and their chef Inci—a Turkish woman living in Nashville for six years—have already expanded their menu, which varies little from lunch to dinner, except in portion size and price. While the bulk of dishes will sound familiar to anyone who has eaten in other Middle Eastern restaurants—hummus, dolmas, gyros and shish kabob, for example—Anatolia separates itself from others with a commitment to quality, top-notch product and ingredients, a light hand with oil, a superb sense of seasoning and an emphatic freshness that marks everything.

When we sat down, puffy round rolls with a sprinkle of black sesame seeds were delivered to the table straight from the oven, as was the dense and doughy homemade Turkish bread; when dipped into the shallow dish of olive oil provided, the warm breads provoked the release of a faint scent of citrus against the fruity fragrance of imported Turkish olive oil. The lemony, creamy hummus was so outstanding that most of us opted to revel in its utter goodness without the distraction of bread. The chickpea dip was one of three items on the sampler platter, along with crisp, golden deep-fried rolls of phyllo dough stuffed with feta. Rounding out the platter, the dolmas—grape leaves stuffed with rice, pine nuts, currants and fresh parsley—were notably lacking the oiliness that frequently mars other versions.

The shepherd salad is a chop-chop of tomato, cucumber, green pepper, onion and fresh parsley, lightly dressed with olive oil and red wine vinegar, then topped with feta; the Anatolia salad adds chopped romaine lettuce, but deletes the feta cheese and onion. The eggplant is as central to Turkish cuisine as the potato is to the American diet, and one of the many methods of preparing it is eggplant salad, a mildly flavored char-grilled mash made with a dice of tomato, onion and bell pepper, then served in a mound between pale-green inner leaves of romaine, which we used as scoops.

Shish kabobs offer a choice of marinated chicken, shrimp, lamb, beef or adana, seasoned ground lamb; all come served with a third skewer of grilled vegetables. If you are indecisive, a mixed grill platter will cover the bases of chicken and lamb, adding kofta (ground beef and lamb patties) and lamb gyro. Plates come with a ball of lightly buttered and salted basmati rice, centered with a whole almond. The cubed, skewered meats were uniformly tender and perfectly seasoned, complemented by the cool yogurt dip with dill.

What most distinguishes Anatolia is a small selection of dishes described as Klasik Turk Ev Yemekleri, which Huseyin translates as Turkish home cooking. “This is what we cook at home,” he explains. “These dishes are not found in restaurants in Turkey. We wanted to give a taste of how Turkish people eat in their homes.” Manti is Turkish ravioli, a rich and hearty creation of homemade pasta pinched around dabs of seasoned ground beef; the tiny bite-sized bundles are boiled to al dente chewiness, immersed in a garlic-yogurt-butter sauce, and topped with red pepper and chopped mint.

Lamb is another staple of the Turkish diet, and in addition to kabobs and gyros, Anatolia serves a special of baby lamb roasted on a cast-iron plate with white onion, green pepper and juicy plum tomatoes, which combine to make a savory sauce for the meat—a simple but delicious dish. Order the guvec only if you like stew and are particularly fond of peas, which in our experience dominated the mix of vegetables that also included carrots, zucchini, green beans, tomatoes and onion. Eggplant shines in another leading role as billur kabob, when it takes on a supporting cast of roasted chicken cubes, pashamal (white) sauce and mozzarella cheese, before being baked in a stone pizza oven. Lahmacun, the Turkish pizza of minced lamb sautéed with bell peppers, tomato, onion, parsley and Turkish spices on flatbread, is baked Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday evenings.

Be sure to order the kunefe dessert at the same time as your entrées, as it takes 20 minutes to prepare this honey-laced, cheesy, phyllo-dough construction so absolutely divine as to please the gods. If you forget, and want immediate gratification, the baklava or kadiyif, made daily and served with freshly whipped cream, will more than appease the sweet-toothed. Anatolia has no bar, but does carry a dry red and a white wine from Turkey, along with Turkish fruit juices, a Turkish soda, yogurt drinks and hot apple tea.

All people hold in their hearts their own notion of heaven; how fortunate for Nashville that Huseyin and Harun Ustunkaya are so joyfully and generously sharing theirs with us.

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