RIZA ATAS OWNS A COUPLE OF RESTAURANTS that make the great Turkish dishes: lamb pides, octopus casserole, and other delights.
He’s also a wrestler who can turn you into Turkish taffy.
Yagli Gures wrestling—Turkey’s national sport—is not the sort of wrestling Hulk Hogan or Jesse “The Body” Ventura engage in. It’s a serious sport. “You put olive oil on, then you wrestle,” Atas said, motioning as if lathering his broad chest with imaginary oil. “In Turkey it’s very popular.”
When he was younger, Atas was a fierce competitor, making it onto the national Gures team. (Atas claims that he was once challenged to wrestle a bear with his bare hands, which he did successfully.) As he got older, he worked in the Gures organization in his hometown.
The bulky, black-haired 45-year-old former athlete has appeared on Turkish television, becoming something of a national figure (or so he says—and The Eater believes him). He even ran for parliament two years ago. He lost but did well enough that he’s planning another run soon.
Aside from his colorful life in his homeland, Atas has another life in Brooklyn, as the head of a construction company and as one of the borough’s leading Turkish restaurateurs.
Atas, who first came to America 20 years ago (“to improve my English,” he said), is the proprietor of two Turkish restaurants, both in Sheepshead Bay, both called Istanbul. He opened the first on Emmons Avenue nine years ago, following it up with a second on Coney Island Avenue seven years later. And he doesn’t think much of his competition in Brooklyn.
“This is the only real Turkish restaurant,” Atas said of Istanbul. “It is 1,000-percent Turkish.”
Unlike other athletes-cum-restaurateurs—the Mickey Mantles and Jack Dempseys of the world, whose establishments tend toward the mediocre—Atas knows what he’s doing when it comes to food. For Atas, the restaurant business is a family tradition. Atas’s brothers own a coffee house in Istanbul, and his family owns another restaurant in Malatya called Pehlivan (which means “wrestler”). The restaurant tradition has touched the younger generation, as well: Atas’s son, Hicri, is one of Istanbul’s bakers/dessert-makers/chefs. (Hicri was a Gures wrestler back in Turkey, too.)
At the Emmons Avenue restaurant the specialties are pides and kebabs. A pide can best be described as a savory pie: a shell of dough baked around lamb, feta cheese, chicken, or sausage. The restaurant also serves up a delicious array of appetizers like fried cubes of chicken liver, along with standard fare such as humus, eggplant, yogurt, and feta cheese, all of which are uniformly good.
The Coney Island Avenue Istanbul has many of the same appetizers, but its specialty is fish. Its menu overflows with exotic treats like ahtopot guvec (octopus casserole), hamsi tava (pan-fried anchovies), and cupra, a tasty Mediterranean fish, which is served char-grilled with a salad.
Atas led The Eater through the Coney Island Avenue restaurant, proudly pointing to the building’s marble and stone work that he installed himself. He showed off letters from Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Borough President Marty Markowitz, as well as pictures of Turkish parliamentarians who have dined at his restaurants.
Atas, who is more than a little bit of a Turkish patriot, brought out travel guides about Istanbul and Malatya for The Eater. He showed The Eater books about Turkish harems, laughing wolfishly as he discussed the pashas who lorded over hundreds of women. He even held forth on cinematic depictions of his homeland.
“Have you seen Midnight Express?” he asked The Eater, referring to the famous 1978 film about an American who is sent to a Turkish prison.
The Eater admitted that he hadn’t.
“Don’t,” Atas responded. “Terrible film.”
But most of all, he expounded upon the virtues of Turkish cuisine.
“Turkish food is good for you. It’s healthy,” he said, extending a muscular forearm. “Go ahead, feel this.”
Indeed, it felt solid.
“I eat fish, cold appetizers, it’s all fat free,” Atas said with a laugh. “It makes you sexy. It’s like Turkish Viagra.”
Istanbul, 2817 Coney Island Ave., Sheepshead Bay (Q to Sheepshead Bay), 718-743-0743, entrees $12-$17; 1715 Emmons Ave., Sheepshead Bay (Q to Sheepshead Bay), 718-368-3587, entrees $9-$17.
Max Gross is a frequent contributor to the New York Post and the Forward.
Additional Restaurant Reviews (By Max Gross):
Ali’s Original Roti Shop
In the middle of a weekday afternoon, the line at Ali’s Original can wind around the interior of this compact Trinidadian eatery, with customers waiting 15 minutes to get their food—but you won’t hear anyone complaining. Ali’s specialty is its roti, a popular Caribbean dish of East Indian origin. For those who have never tried roti, it’s a flat bread rolled up like a burrito and filled with curries, meats, and spices. Ali’s serves veggie, chicken, beef, goat, shrimp, oxtail, and even conch roti. Also on the eclectic menu are the restaurant’s takes on Chinese dishes, including fried rice and chow mein, and West Indian drinks like Sea Moss and Peanut Punch. Ali’s patient customers swear that it’s one of the best restaurants on a bustling Crown Heights commercial strip known for its West Indian eateries. 337 Utica Ave., Crown Heights (3 or 4 to Utica), 718-778-7329, roti $5-$8, platters $6-$9.
Ask the waitress, “What’s good here?” and she will immediately reply, “Everything.” Ferdinando’s has been in business for a century, and it has persevered because it is frighteningly yummy. A focacceria is traditionally a Sicilian snack restaurant, and Ferdinando’s is one of the handful still left in Brooklyn. The restaurant’s rice ball is a deep-fried orb filled with rice and meat, and topped with tomato sauce and cheese. The chickpea fritters have a well-earned reputation. And the atmosphere resembles something straight out of The Godfather. 151 Union St., Carroll Gardens (F or G to Carroll), 718-855-1545, entrees $4-$17.
There are some nasty—and decidedly untrue—things said about Polish cuisine. It will never rise to haute cuisine, say the skeptics. It is lowbrow. It is greasy. Well, they might technically be right, but there is something in The Eater’s peasant roots that cries out for a plate of kasha now and then, and Little Poland is the place to fill up on it. Little Poland is nestled in a section of Greenpoint where pierogies are plentiful, and this restaurant competes with the best. The potato pancakes are golden brown and delicious, and the kielbasa is as good as you’re liable to find in the neighborhood. How many Polish restaurants does it take to satisfy The Eater? Just one—Little Poland. 136 Greenpoint Ave., Greenpoint (G to Greenpoint), 718-389-8368, entrees $5-$7.
Los Pollitos II
One of The Eater’s friends—a die-in-the-wilderness foodie—will often cancel his fancy dinner reservations, go home, and order the super nachos from Los Pollitos II. These nachos—dripping with melted cheese and chorizo—are decadent bliss for any nacho lover, but there is so much more to recommend Park Slope’s Los Pollitos II (as well as its older brother in Sunset Park, Los Pollitos). The rotisserie chicken is the specialty, and one can see why. It is served as either a quarter-chicken ($2.50), half-chicken ($3.50), or a plump whole chicken ($7), with a sweet and zingy jalapeño sauce on the side. The burritos are delicious (even the veggie burrito!), and the platters are as solid as one would find at any Latin American restaurant. 148 Fifth Ave., Park Slope (R to Union), 718-623-9152, soft tacos $2, platters $11-$15.
Ming Gee Seafood Palace
Many critics have not given Brooklyn its due in the realm of Chinese food. In fact, anything you can find on Mott Street, you can find in Sunset Park. And Ming Gee Seafood Palace is one of Sunset Park’s best. A gigantic restaurant/banquet hall that takes up a half city-block, Ming Gee serves superb—and very authentic—dim sum, including goodies like chicken feet, minced fish balls, and turnip cakes. The dinner menu might be even better; the various noodle and fish dishes are superb, and those who are simply hunting for old favorites like Peking duck or eggplant with garlic sauce will leave happy. 618 62nd St., Sunset Park (N or R to 59th Street), 718-492-4301, entrees $10-$30.
The Soul Spot
You mean to say you’ve never tasted oxtail? For shame! While it may sound like a dish that food snobs would keep a healthy distance from, the oxtail at Atlantic Avenue’s Soul Spot is smothered in gravy, comes with two mouth-watering side dishes, and is unquestionably delicious. And it is one of many treats on this combination soul food/Caribbean menu—from meatloaf and baked salmon to jerk chicken and fried catfish—that would bring out the son of the South in anybody. 302 Atlantic Ave., Boerum Hill (F to Bergen, G to Hoyt-Schermerhorn), 718-596-9933, dinner entrees $9-$12, lunch entrees $7-$10.
In the last few years, Bay Ridge has become the battleground for the Middle Eastern restaurateur. In addition to Karam, the great shawarma take-out joint, there’s La Maison du Couscous, one of the best Moroccan spots in New York, and Sally & George’s Place, which has flourished for decades. Tanoreen is the latest restaurant to take its place in Bay Ridge’s pantheon of great Arab restaurants. Rawia Bishara, Tanoreen’s Nazareth-born owner, looks over her customers like an expectant mother hen. She will drop by your table to make sure everything is satisfactory—but she never has much to worry about. The food at Tanoreen is delicious. The baked Mediterranean eggplant consists of a ground-meat filling with tomatoes, garlic, onions, and toasted pignoli nuts; the grilled combo—chicken kebab and shish kebab—is as good as anything one will find in the neighborhood, and Bishara always has a tasty ocean creature on her long list of specials. 7704 Third Ave., Bay Ridge (R train to 77th Street), 718-748-5600, entrees $11-$18.
The general trend for so many restaurateurs has been like this: Set up shop in Brooklyn. Get great. Move to Manhattan. Close shop in Brooklyn. Great neighborhood places like An Dong, Sunset Park’s Vietnamese sandwich shop, have pulled up stakes in recent years for Manhattan. Very sad. But it’s nice to hear about the occasional chef who decides to do the opposite: Leave the glam of Gotham for the bustle of Brooklyn. Three years ago Thomas Ferlesch left Café des Artistes to open up his very own Viennese restaurant, Thomas Beisl (literally, Thomas’s Bistro), across the street from BAM, and it would seem his cooking skills have not suffered in the slightest because of the move. The beef-cheek goulash (served with spaetzle) is as good as any goulash The Eater can recall having had. The chicken liver terrine with kumquat-cranberry compote melts in your mouth and would be double the price on a Manhattan menu. And the warm apple strudel for dessert will make you sing like a Von Trapp. 25 Lafayette Ave., Fort Greene (2, 3, 4, 5, B, or Q to Atlantic; D, M, N, or R to Pacific; G to Fulton; C to Lafayette), 718-222-5800, entrees $13-$18, Sunday brunch $9-$10.