Turkish cuisine may not jump off the radar for many diners, but Uskudar on the Upper East Side in Manhattan is a rare treat. The Turkish restaurant is one of those small gems scattered throughout New York City, catering mainly to locals.
Visitors who come to the city often tend to stick to restaurants in tourist hot spots like the Theater District, Little Italy, or Times Square, even though many are tourist-traps, with passable food at high prices.
But when you venture out into neighborhoods on the West or East Side, Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen or elsewhere, you’ll find restaurants that serve great food, often ethnic, at moderate prices.
Good neighborhood restaurants usually stand the test of time. Locals won’t patronize a place very long, unless it offers good value and great food.
Uskudar has been doing business on E. 73rd St. at Second Ave. for 32 years. That’s enough of an endorsement to end this review right here.
But the restaurant has an interesting back-story and is a great place to be introduced to Turkish food.
Anytime the executive chef is an owner, you can rest assured that attention to detail is being paid to every aspect of the restaurant’s operation.
Chef Ibrahim Ozdemir founded Uskudar in the late ’80s with a partner after arriving here from Istanbul. Ozdemir is Muslim and his long-time partner is Jewish. So score one for international relations as well.
The chef grew up in the Turkish capital, learned to cook there and still speaks in heavily accented English.
He told IM he started his restaurant career at the bottom. He apprenticed baking bread and moved up to pastries and desserts, before he ever cooked his first meal.
By the time he arrived in the United States, he’d worked as a chef in some of Istanbul’s top, five-star hotels. He named the restaurant after an Istanbul neighborhood.
In Manhattan, Uskudar is what’s often known as a “townhouse restaurant.”
The dining room is long and narrow, with enough room for tables along each wall, and an aisle down the middle. That’s how it remained for most of its existence. But about a year ago, it took over similar space next door and doubled its size to handle the crowds.
The decor is modest, and has a Turkish feel, although not overtly so. Our waiter was Turkish which helped when it came to explaining the menu.
Among the appetizers sampled were Borek, pan-fried phyllo rolls, with crumbled feta & spinach and Yalanci Dolma, consisting of vine leaves with rice, black currants, onions, pine nuts. We also sampled Cacik, a chilled yogurt with shaved cucumber, garlic and dill.
We also tried the Manti: Turkish Dumplings, homemade ground beef, poached, topped with garlic-yogurt sauce, sumac, mint.
A Vegan would be happy here. So would a carnivore.
Amid dishes like Vegetaraian Musakka, chunks of baby eggplants, braised in tomato-garlic sauce, side of rice or vegetables and a Vegetable Cassrole, veggies stewed in tomato sauce, with or steamed vegetables, the lamb and chicken entrees stand out.
Incredibly, lamb is served seven different ways.
The dishes include a simple lamb shank stewed with carrots & potatoes in light lemon sauce, to more elaborate concoctions like Lamb Adana Yogurt, chargrilled and skewered ground lamb with roasted bell peppers and paprika and a side of rice & onions.
Lamb shish kebab underpins most of the entrees. The straight Lamb Shish, lamb chunks marinated and skewered with tomatoes, onions and peppers, is a standout. The entree obviously succeeds, or fails, on the lamb. The danger is the meat is easily overcooked and can end up being too dry.
We ordered ours medium rare, with an emphasis on rare, and Chef Ozdemir delivered. That’s what we mean be attention to detail. The lamb was juicy and tender, just as we had hoped.
Chicken gets similar treatment. It’s prepared eight different ways.
The dishes include Chicken Yogurt, basically chunks of chicken breast baked with sautéed pita & yogurt; Chicken and Okra Casserole, chicken breast sautéed with okra & light tomato sauce and Garlic Chicken, chunks of chicken breast sautéed with garlic, lemon and white wine.
There’s also Chicken and Vegetables, chunks of chicken breast sautéed with vegetables in tomato sauce and Shepherd’s Chicken Sautee, chicken cubes sautéed with mushrooms, peppers & tomatoes, side of rice & tomatoes.
Seafood is also represented on the menu.
Wild Branzini is chargrilled whole while Shrimp Shish is marinated and chargrilled on skewers with onion & peppers. A Salmon Fillet is baked with white wine, lemon and garlic, or mushroom tomato sauce. Tilapia is baked with white wine, lemon, garlic sauce, or mushroom tomato sauce.
By now you’re probably getting the drift: yogurt, okra and other vegetables pop up all over the menu. All entrees come with a side of rice and steamed vegetables and/or salad.
The big surprise is the food is not overly spicy. Plus, yogurt, usually for dipping, adds a refreshing coolness to dishes.
Desserts get a special mention, because, after all, they’re Chef Ozdemir’s specialty.
Kadyif, a baked shredded wheat, with walnuts and pistachios and infused with honey, is unlike anything we’ve seen before. It has to be considered a standout.
Keskul, a coconut pudding, is so creamy it literally melts in your mouth.
The menu also offers Sutlac, a baked rice pudding; a Creme Caramel flan; Krem Sokola, a chocolate pudding and Baklava topped with walnuts and pistachios.
Despite its location, Uskudar hasn’t gone unnoticed.
Zagat included it on its list of the best restaurants in New York City for every type of cuisine. The New York Times called it “the very model of a successful neighborhood institution.”
The restaurant is open every day from noon to 10:30 pm, caters, delivers and has two private dining rooms. It offers a three-course, pre-fixe lunch for $19.
Address: 1405 Second Ave. (between 73rd & 74th Streets), New York, NY 10021
Phone: (212) 988–4046
Web site: Uskudar online.