Sip Sak: Orhan Yegen's Ottoman Empire
928 Second Avenue, New York, NY 10022 (at 49th Street; map); 212-583-1900; orhanyegen.com/sipsak
Service: Eager to please, and more eager to cover for the owner/chef's less becoming eccentricities
Setting: Charming, classy bistro-style room with accents of marble and brass
Must-Haves: Mezze platter, Chicken Adana Kebab, Lamb Chunks Over Eggplant Purée
Cost: Appetizers, $7 to $12; Mains, $16 to $25
Grade: Barring the occasional craziness, A-
"What you are eating here is my culture," Orhan Yegen tells us. He points across our expanse of dishes and says, "It has to be like this. There can be no other way." Unspoken, but implied: "and if you don't like it, tough!"
This is not what chefs tend to tell a happy, compliant group of twelve who are thoroughly enjoying their three course lunch. But I can't say I was surprised. Though it was the first time I was called out as a "tourist" in my dozen-odd meals at Sip Sak over the past several years, I had a feeling it was coming. Yegen's reputation—the Soup Nazi of New York's Turkish dining scene—preceeds him.
We were essentially told that the food at Sip Sak is beyond reproach, and if we had a problem, it lay with us. But here's the thing: for the most part, Yegen is right. Sip Sak's cooking so resembles what you'll find in Turkey that it's hard not to imagine yourself there.
Yegen knows a thing or two about the Turkish restaurant business, which he's helped lead for more than 25 years. His typical M.O. is to start restaurants, make them truly delicious, and then leave. They are not the same afterward.
The latest subject of his departure, Bi Lokma, has just been turned over to another Turkish chef. It's too early to say whether it will be another chef-shuffle victim, but it does mean that Sip Sak is now the only place to get Yegen's cooking the way he wants it done.
By Yegen terms, his stay at Sip Sak has been long, since he started the restaurant in 2004. It looks more like a Midtown bistro than a Turkish enclave, with tin ceiling tiles and accents of marble and brass, though its prices are well in line with the city's other Turkish bastions. You'll find more refinement in the food here as well, making it one of the few "nice" places in Midtown East that offers serious cooking for those without expense accounts.
Turkish meals frequently begin with an assortment of small plates called mezze, and Sip Sak's menu runs the gamut of classics: hummus, tzatziki-like cacık,* and patlıcan salatası, a super-smoky eggplant purée similar to, but lighter than babaganoush. You'll also find some you may not be looking for, like braised celery root or artichokes with fava beans. They are all listed as separate items, but say the word and the kitchen will make up a mixed mezze plate for you.
* Pronounced judge-jick. The unaccented "c" becomes a "j" in Turkish, and the "ı" is an almost silent vowel.
This is a Yegen restaurant, so they don't volunteer the price right away and you won't get much say in what goes into it. But it's the undisputed highlight of the meal. Yegen is a wizard of vegetables: his eggplant salad is that much smokier and cleaner than others; his braised leeks silky and sweet as candy. He's just as gifted at legumes, with buttery hummus and a tart but balanced white bean salad. And the sigara boregi that crown the vegetable mountain? Crisp and flaky, with a slight oiliness to boost their tangy cheese filling.
Sharing this plate is eating out at its most fun, like dim sum without the stomach ache. You'll choose your own adventure as you work your way through the pile of dips and salads. Some strategies: I swipe my borek in the eggplant purée for smoke and the cacık for creaminess. The fried eggplant cubes get mixed with ezme, tomatoes cooked down with shallots and electrified with pomegranate molasses. The celery root is taken solo; rarely is the vegetable exalted so thoroughly and deserving of isolated appreciation.
When the frenzy is over and just a film of dip remains, dive in with bread and mop like your life depends on it. The Turks rival the French for bread baking, and Sip Sak's fluffy stuff is replenished throughout the meal, always warm with a delicate crust of nigella seeds. It's a crime to leave a drop of mezze behind, and the bread sops it up gorgeously.
Does a plate of vegetables deserve all this attention? At Sip Sak it does. And when it comes to $11.50 a person (prices can vary), it's a gift.
You could stop there and call it day—I have done so at many a small lunch—but there's more to discover, especially as you could order your whole meal off the specials, and the menu changes regularly. Lamb reigns here, but the minced Chicken Adana Kebab ($19) is a sleeper success, with the sweet heft of dark meat made all the sweeter by red pepper. Lamb Adana Kebab ($19) is no slouch either, just gamey enough and perfectly seasoned.
Though beyond those kebabs it may be best to avoid the grilled items. There's nothing wrong with the lamb chops or lamb and chicken shish kebabs, but they're not as juicy as the minced ones, and they lack the makings of the delirious pleasure that the braises and casseroles induce.
Like that dish of Lamb Chunks Over Eggplant Purée ($18), with spoon-tender knobs of lamb braised with tomato and olive oil. At other Turkish restaurants around Manhattan, the eggplant purée is enriched—and dumbed down, you could say—with cream. Sip Sak keeps it cleaner, heavy on the smoke and the eggplant's natural fruitiness. Likewise, I have yet to find a Moussaka ($14.50) better than Sip Sak's, where bechamel, stewy eggplant and tomato, and ground meat come together so seamlessly and delicately.
One exception to the braised-is-awesome rule: Short Ribs ($24) over mashed potatoes may sound like a picky eater's respite, but it's underseasoned with gummy starch. A far better bet is something closer to Yegen's roots, like the Stuffed Cabbage when it's on the menu. It's the lamb-rice-tomato combination we've seen before, but in a more comforting package, and run through with dill.
Pay close attention to the specials of the day, which offer Yegen's food at its most intense and immediate. Our Pilaf was cooked with caramelized onions, caramelized pine nuts, sweet cinnamon, and more braised lamb—those caramelized pine nuts will spoil you. Lamahcun ($8.50), a thin flatbread topped with minced lamb, tomato, and herbs (the bar pie of Turkey), balances crisp crust and tender meat with an unmatched acuity in New York.
None of these dishes, in design, are all that different from what you'll find on other Turkish menus. But I have had too many lamb and eggplant meals in this city that taste good, but static. They're snapshots of a cuisine, but they don't interact with it.
It's different at Sip Sak, where Yegen is at play all the time. Dishes morph on his whims and ingredient availability—which is how market- and vegetable-centric cooking works all the time in Turkey, but so rarely here. I've made my peace with Yegen's less becoming eccentricities because they're also responsible for his intense commitment—he runs restaurants with a sense of urgency, that it's important for people to eat this food.
I can't say there's anything urgent about the desserts, but they're unexpected and crafted well. Almond Pudding ($7) is admittedly light on the almonds, but the custard is smooth and quite light, silky in a way that most starch-thickened puddings never are. Lighter still is Butternut Squash ($7), roasted in large chunks and glazed, then tossed in a sundae glass with thick cream and walnuts. It's the dessert hater's dessert—only lightly sweet with vegetal flavors weaving their way through the cream. Baklava ($6) comes in the Turkish style, light on the syrup and heavy on the pistachios, with both soft and crisp layers of phyllo. And in what Yegen challenged us as "this is not the halva you know," Semolina Halva ($7) is a pine nut-enriched semolina crust over a dome of pleasantly creamy ice cream.
Turkish cooking has never enjoyed flyaway success in this city the way that Italian or Chinese has. But what are we after these days? People who care about vegetables. The allure of the new, but comfort food as well. Chefs who are on missions to show us what foreign cuisines really look like. Against such demands, Sip Sak should be stuffed to the gills.
So what if the owner is a little out there? Downtown diners have put up with far worse from less talented cooks, in spaces half the size and four times as cramped. And Yegen has tempered himself over time; mostly he's the perfect host, smiling all the while. At Sip Sak, the meal is serene, but the food is very much alive. Get there quickly, before Yegen's on the move again.