W hen Sammy Kuru opened the doors of Saray Turkish Restaurant in July 2006 and began greeting customers, he had some reassuring to do. “A lot of people didn’t know Turkish food when we started,” he says. “Customers came in and looked around, kind of scared.” Sammy would welcome them in, sit them down and make this exotic food approachable.
Six years later, the approachability question hardly bears asking anymore. Then again, six years is nothing compared to the age of the culinary tradition Kuru is advancing with Saray. Turkey is the modern descendant of the Ottoman Empire, which mixed food traditions across several cultures—and several centuries—to produce what we can now call Turkish cuisine. “It’s a long story!” Sammy says. “For 600 years with the Ottoman Empire, the Armenian, Greek, Turkish, Arabic, Jewish, Kurdish peoples lived together.” With the land area comprising modern-day Turkey at the geographic, political and economic center of the Empire, Turkish cuisine was equally well situated to give to and take from traditions spanning North Africa, Mesopotamia, the Balkans and Eastern Europe, with, of course, the Mediterranean in-between.
Which is not to say that the Turkish people haven’t retained their own interesting culinary peculiarities in different regions. Fortunately, although the Kuru family hails from the north (near the Black Sea and the Russian border), Sammy’s brother Halil prepares food from all over Turkey. Waiters are required to be knowledgeable about Turkish food and maintain fluency in both Turkish and English to be able to answer customers’ questions.
The Cold Mixed Appetizer is a good place to start, a kaleidoscope of colors and flavors featuring five different concoctions to try: traditional hummus, a creamy yogurt dill sauce, two different kinds of eggplant—one a char-grilled and slightly smoky puree, the other consisting of moist, larger chunks marinated in a sweet, spicy oil—and their Antep Ezme, a deep red, spicy paste of peppers, tomatoes and walnuts, which we mixed with the other dips to minimize the heat.
Appetizers, by the way, are served with a basket of warm Turkish bread, made daily by their ‘bread man,’ as they call him. He arrives at 9 a.m. and his first batch is ready by 11 a.m. for the lunch crowd.
Vegetarians and omnivores alike will find plenty of entrées. All meats are Halal, a Muslim diet similar to Kosher in that the animals must be slaughtered at the throat with a sharp blade, believed to be the most humane method, and completely drained of blood, which is thought to carry diseases. Saray’s meat comes from Leader Mer-Et Halal in Brooklyn, bought whole and butchered on the premises in West Haven. “My brother can look at the meat and tell you how old it is,” Sammy says, an important consideration because they don’t use meat from animals more than three years of age when slaughtered; they believe the meat is too tough otherwise.
That certainly wasn’t an issue with anything on the Grilled Mixed Meat Platter. It was huge, better to share family-style, with samplings of Adana Kebab (ground lamb), Doner Kebab (beef and lamb marinated overnight), lamb chop and beef shish kebab, accompanied by rice, grilled long peppers and tomatoes. Everything was tender and gently seasoned. So were the Chicken Kebabs, for those who prefer white meat. Mujver—the Turkish version of a potato pancake with shredded vegetables packed into patty form—is a tasty vegetarian option, available in zucchini or spinach. An egg batter holds it all together, then it’s pan-seared and topped with a yogurt dill sauce. The five veggie cakes are served alongside a vibrant salad of romaine lettuce, julienne carrots and purple cabbage, which is marinated overnight in vinaigrette for a slightly pickled note.
On the sweet side, nearly every dessert is made in-house, the exception being the New York City-made baklava. Their most popular treat is easily the Kunefe, named after a town in Southern Turkey where it originates. Traditionally, Kunefe is made with goat cheese from the region; Sammy believes the mountain air and the special grass in Kunefe affect the quality of the animals and their milk, endowing the cheese with unique properties. He couldn’t find a comparable goat cheese here, so, perhaps surprisingly, Saray uses mozzarella instead. They shred Phyllo dough, coat it in butter, then add the cheese, then add another layer of shredded dough and butter. It’s served hot as a pie with a crust that looks like a bird’s nest, the Phyllo dough toasted and dense with a simple syrup sugar and lemon, topped with ground pistachios. The dessert could easily satisfy a table of four, and is best eaten immediately when it’s warm and gooey.
Tea or Turkish coffee makes a good accompaniment. The tea is so strong they serve it half-watered down—Sammy takes his with two cubes of natural sugar. There’s also a sweet apple tea reminiscent of apple cider, perfect for the coming fall. Alcohol is BYOB, and there’s no corkage fee. It’s one more way in which this restaurant proves to be quite affordable, averaging between $25 to $30 per person for a robust three-course meal.
The setting at Saray is rich and opulent, which is only fitting as the name translates to “palace.” Handmade rugs hang on the walls in various shapes and sizes, one-of-a-kind originals. Sammy points to one with particular pride, a ceremonial rug made in East Turkey—when girls turn 15 they weave the rug together as a group project and rite of passage. Sammy says these rugs aren’t easy to find because they are authentic, which is exactly what makes a night at Saray so special.
Saray Turkish Restaurant
770 Campbell Avenue, West Haven (map)
Notes: BYOB, no corkage fee.
Written by Jane Rushmore. Photographed by Kathleen Cei.