Our annual Christmas Eve in New York City was unseasonably warm this year. At first, we kept saying that it didn’t feel like Christmas but once out of Grand Central Terminal and ambled over to Madison Avenue for the uptown bus and then strode west to Fifth and up to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, we got caught up in the festive atmosphere that envelops the city every December.
Every year our family treks into the city early on the day before Christmas for a culture plus cuisine experience. We’ve done the Nutcracker plus P. J. Clarke’s, the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall plus Artisanal, store window-grazing along Fifth Avenue plus Fig and Olive, Bryant Park with its skating rink and vendors plus Kellari Tavern, and of course, Rockefeller Center with its tree and skaters and music.
This time we explored the Neapolitan Baroque Crèche and Christmas tree, the Temple of Dendur, Arms and Armor, and the Greek Galleries at the Met. According to my granddaughter, the best exhibit was the one featuring the beautiful couture of Jacqueline de Ribes. Surprisingly, there was not the usual crush of museum goers so we were able to stroll about at leisure and explore the wonderful collections. Then we were off under a light drizzle to the East Side and the Turkish restaurant, Beyoglu.
Beyoglu sits on the corner of Third Avenue and 81st Street, a short walk from the Met and a few doors up from Zabar’s (because our table for nine wasn’t ready, a few of us darted into the food emporium to browse the bins and refrigerated cases, promising ourselves to pick up some olive bread on our way home). The restaurant has its quirky charms, with tables inset with vibrantly colored tiles and walls painted a vivid lime green and deep burgundy red. A painted flowering tree branch spirals up one column, a round clock on a rear wall ticks away the minutes, and a huge vase filled with exuberant floribunda on a pedestal table grabs attention away from the small bar to its right. Large windows bring a streetside feeling to the indoors.
But there is nothing eccentric about the food, a blend of cuisines from Middle Eastern to Mediterranean. First off, the service is excellent — and patient. We ordered one course, relaxed with bottles of Efes beer and glasses of well-chilled, nicely balanced Majestik white wine before ordering the next course. The waitress never pushed us, even though the dining room was fully subscribed, bringing us round loaves of warm, seed-dusted Turkish bread that boasted a soft almost creamy interior during the course of the meal.
Our first order was a large platter of meze: hummus, smoky eggplant, tabbouleh, spinach touched with cucumber yogurt, and a delicious tomato/pepper relish. It’s an excellent sampling of cold meze. Put this dish in front of me while I’m reading a good book, give me a glass of wine and some bread and I would be very happy. Although the dishes are identified by Turisk names with translations on the menu, I wish they would be more fully described. For example, the Kofte Kebab, we read, is a Mediterranean meatball, but whether it is lamb or beef or a combination of both is not revealed. Nonetheless, it had just the right amount of spicy kick and was quite tasty.
We also tried Sigara Borek (filo dough stuffed with feta cheese), and falafel topped with tahini sauce, both good choices. Best of all was the Beyoglu salad replete with tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, peppers, slabs of feta cheese and a grilled chicken breast, the whole judiciously dressed with a lemon vinaigrette. At $9, it’s an incredible bargain for a salad that can be considered a main dish.
The kitchen does a fairly good job with its combination platters (from $14.50 to $20), all presented with a mild rice pilaf and such sides as shredded carrots or red cabbage, wedges of lemons and tomatoes. The nicely seared swordfish was tender and the lamb chops perfectly cooked medium-rare, Unfortunately, the chicken breast was over-cooked and dry. And the calamari? Well, they came cold and limp to the table, as if they had been defrosted and never made it to the pan of hot oil. We should have sent it back, but “make no waves” was the motto of the day.
Some of us ended the meal with a thimble-sized cup of Turkish coffee, strong enough to keep us eager for the rest of our excursions: the Cathedral bereft of the scaffolding that bothered us last year was beautiful, spiffed and glowing with gold candlesticks and pots of red poinsettias; Bergdorf’s windows were charming; Saks blue-lights extravaganza was show-stopping; and tourists and natives alike were joyful.
Another wonderful Christmas Eve. Too bad we forgot to pick up Zabar’s bread — it would have been perfect on the table alongside the rib roast.