They’re big on doner kebab in Istanbul but there are plenty of options much better than Turkish food’s most famous export. The Professor and I enjoyed eating in the establishments that give this place its name: a lokānta is a kind of workers’ cafe, where chefs fill your plate with homely hot dishes from bains-marie and you drink ayran, a slightly salty, watery yoghurt.
It’s that casual atmosphere that owner Ali Arsan is seeking to create at Lokānta, which has just opened in the spot on Richmond Rd where others (M, Covo, then I lost track) have tried and failed. When we dropped in at the end of week two, they had the casual neighbourhood thing working a treat. The big front window was still open summer-wide to the street and tables on the footpath made it look like a place worth stopping at. I was glad we had booked.
Not having been in the place for a while, I’m not sure what they’ve done by way of a refit, though there’s a lovely floor-to-ceiling photograph of a street scene. Arsan, who was ferrying plates to busy tables, told us with a wink that the little boy in the photo is him, but in fact the people are Greek.
Forget the long-term fractious relationship [between Greece and Turkey]: Lokānta deals in the food of the Aegean that laps against both countries, so a dish of grilled eggplant and peppers gets its Turkish name, kizartma, but the cucumber and yoghurt dressing has the Greek name tzatziki.
Arsan is behind the Tasca eateries in Newmarket and Mt Eden and there are traces of Tasca’s menu in the line-up here, which is not surprising since chef Zeki Kizilata, in a black Tasca T-shirt, is presiding in the kitchen.
“This is not an upmarket place,” Arsan told me. “We are not upmarket people. We cook what we eat and we hope others like eating it, too.”
Well, we did, a lot. From a menu that included very little of the expected (taramasalata to start; baklava to finish), we were most impressed with the smaller dishes: tender chargrilled octopus that looked and tasted like it had come from the sea, not a packet in a freezer; lahmajun, its pizza-like crust smeared with spicy meat, which you drizzle with lemon juice and wrap around tomato and rocket; the aforementioned kizartma; peppers and cabbage leaves stuffed with fragrant, slightly sweet rice.
Mains, homely to a fault, were perhaps less impressive. Beef shin, which came with chickpeas, could have done with a more cooking and the Aegean island goat was very hard to tell from lamb knuckle.
Cubes of swordfish served brochette-style were deliciously moist, but can you really call a dish “the day’s catch” and then name the species in the menu?
Desserts (a fig mousse; an olive oil cake soaked with dessert wine) were fantastic though. I suspect the locals are saying “Welcome to the neighbourhood”.
Peter Calder – NZ Herald