Istanbul Kebab House
The Istanbul Kebab House, located in Burlington, is run by Vural and Jackie Oktay and Vural’s brother, Hasan Oktay. The brothers and their families run the restaurant, as well as the Tuckerbox in White River Junction, with warmth and professionalism based on lifelong careers in the food service industry. Not watered-down, Americanized versions of Turkish food, they offer the real deal, cooked by chefs who still only speak their native language and served by an extended family that has obvious pride in their culture.
Vural worked in the restaurant business in Istanbul prior to moving to the United States in 2003. He met his wife, Jackie, while working at the Mount Washington Resort in New Hampshire, and his brother joined him later in 2012. In June of that year, the brothers and Jackie opened the Istanbul Kebab House in Essex Junction, Ver- mont. The place was an immediate hit. Though the location was in an obscure spot, they developed a following of patrons who were drawn to their exotic yet accessible menu.
The Oktays have since moved their restaurant to bustling Church Street in Burlington and bought the Tuckerbox, a popular local diner in White River Junction. I wanted to learn more about the Oktays and their culinary background, so I called the restaurant several times to make an appointment for an interview. Alas, between the language differences and the expansion going on at the Tuckerbox two hours away, it turned out the Oktays are difficult people to pin down. They were receptive to an article, however, so with deadlines approaching, I decided to load the family into the car and just show up for Saturday night dinner. They were very gracious. We were absolutely delighted.
At first glance, the restaurant is very small with only six tables and a bar on the first floor. Hasan greeted us and introduced us to our waitress, Duygu, who turned out to be the daughter of the chefs, husband and wife Veli and Naciye Getin. Duygu is a beautiful 21-year-old who is studying to be a nurse when she is not working at the restaurant. She spoke no English when she arrived in the States three years previous, and her stilted but accurate sentences were testament to what must have been a tremendous amount of work since she arrived here. Her brother, Serkan, who was dashing about with trays of drinks, was also waitering at the restaurant.
Hasan was pleased to give me a tour of the kitchen and show me the rest of the establishment where it turned out there were 13 more tables on the second floor and a jewel of a rooftop area on the third floor that was open during the warmer months. In keeping with Church Street culture, they also put tables out on the sidewalk in the summer. What at first glance looked like a shoebox joint was actually quite large.
What I mostly wanted was to see was the kitchen and meet the chefs. Veli and Naciye worked in a small space, however, and did not speak any English. Duygu and Serkan filled me in a little about their background. The couple had 26 years of experience in the restaurant industry in Istanbul, using recipes and techniques they had learned from their families.
They had worked with the Oktay family in Turkey and joined them when they made the move to America.
The authenticity of their talents shone through on the menu. Turkish cuisine is an amalgam of European, Central Asian, Jewish and Middle Eastern influences. Lamb figures prominently, and though the food is not spicy, peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, yogurt, garlic, cinnamon and herbs are ever-present. In Turkey, the diet is heavy on vegetables, and Veli and Naciye’s skills with them come through in the appetizer section. We ordered the meze platter, which features hummus, baba ghanoush, dolmas and haydari. The lavash bread is made fresh for every order and is as highly recommended as part of a Turkish meal as a baguette is to the French. I also ordered the mucver and heard words I never thought I would hear from my husband, Eric: “Mmm, that zucchini is delicious.”
As the name would suggest, kebabs are the house specialty, and we ordered a good variety: swordfish, chicken, donner and kofte. Each was perfectly spiced and tender and came with rice, marinated on- ions, pickled red cabbage, greens and haydari. Eric ordered the karniyarik. The eggplant was sweet and meltingly soft and provided the perfect counterpoint to the spiced meat. We stuffed ourselves com- pletely but ordered some dessert; so far everything had been delicious, so why stop?
Dugyu brought out some kesku and one of the few menu breaks from traditional Turkish: baklava made with apples and maple syrup. The pudding was very mild and creamy with just a light scent of almond. The baklava was as sweet and crunchy as any I’ve tasted, and the maple was a nice acknowledgment of their new home state.
One aspect of the restaurant I want to explore further is the drinks menu. Since few Americans are familiar with Turkish wines, the menu offers advice on the best wines to pair with each entrée. And for nonalcoholic drinks, I highly recommend the sour cherry juice, which was tart and refreshing. My children, Henry and Lucy, were with us, as well as Henry’s friend Mark, and I am fairly certain they would return just for the cherry juice. Since I had taken my own car, it was not a good night for me to take a wine tour of Turkey. But I have already planned to return on a balmy summer night to plant myself in the rooftop dining area with a designated driver, an empty stomach and great expectations for an excellent meal.
Laura Sorkin is already dreaming of a sultry summer evening on the roof terrace with lamb kebabs and red wine.