As a Brooklynite, I don't spend much time on the Upper East Side. It's easy to give the neighborhood the short shrift, but it's not like locals there are starving. Case in point: Agora, a Turkish restaurant popular with many that has a wealth of vegetarian options.
I had a good feeling about the place as soon as I stepped into the tiny, cheerily decorated dining room, where I was warmly greeted by a server who immediately brought me a basket of layered flatbread. And I was glad I showed up early, because almost immediately after I was seated at 6:30 p.m., all 17 seats filled and a crowd gathered outside the door.
I started my meal with a classic rendition of eggplant salad ($7), composed of super-sweet, super-creamy, and slightly smokey chopped charred eggplant accented with caramelized onions and copious amounts of fresh dill. The salad had a bright, well-balanced flavor that was far from the muddiness or blandness that can sometimes plague eggplant preparations.
What followed was a definite highlight of the meal: an order of crispy-on-the-outside, melting-on-the-inside zucchini pancakes ($8.95). Fresh from a shallow fry, the pancakes were hot and seasoned with care. A tangy tomato-onion chutney anchored them to the plate, and a spoonful of thick, creamy yogurt cooled things down enough for my dining companion and I to dig into them as soon as they graced our table.
Most of Agora's small plates are vegetarian, making it an ideal destination for a meat-free meal of pecking and grazing—my personal favorite way to eat. But I also wanted to try a more substantial dish, so I ordered the one vegetarian main on the menu: baby okra ($11.95, pictured at top), a light, lovely stew of tiny okra pods, sweet, barely-cooked cherry tomatoes, and green peppers. The okra was wholly devoid of any of the gooiness that can sometimes befall this vegetable: it was tender, with a pleasing level of acidity that cut against the sweetness of the other vegetables.
Agora offers some of the freshest, most lovingly prepared Turkish food I've eaten in New York in recent memory. If this is Upper East Side dining, then you can bet I'll be spending more time on the 6 train.
301 East 80th Street, New York, NY 10075 (map)
About the author: Lauren Rothman is a former Serious Eats intern, a graduate student of journalism, and an obsessive chronicler of all things culinary. Try the original recipes on her blog, For the Love of Food, and follow her on Twitter @Lochina186.