Talking Turkish Cuisine with Helin Ercan of Anatolia Grill and Bar
1. Tell us about Anatolia Grill & Bar.
Anatolia is a Turkish, Mediterranean, and Italian restaurant. Almost everything we serve is home made in our kitchen so that it's always fresh. Our menu is very large and diverse so we have a lot for people to try. If you've never had Turkish food before then you're in for a treat.
2. Why did you combine those 3 cuisines at Anatolia?
Although our Turkish and Mediterranean food is what sets us apart we also wanted to have some dishes that were more familiar to an American audience. From our previous restaurants we had seen a lot of demand for pasta dishes, so we thought "why not?" Europe is very close to our home country of Turkey and we were already very familiar with Italian cooking, so adding some Italian dishes at Anatolia was easy to do and made a lot of sense.
We have many customers who first come in to try our Italian food. When they find out how much they like it they become excited to come back and try some of our Turkish or Mediterranean dishes. So it's a good way to introduce people to food they may not initially think to try.
People also like to try different things and having lots of variety on the menu gives them a lot of options to explore.
3. How long have you owned Anatolia?
Anatolia has been open since 2011 and we took it over in July of 2013.
4. What attracted you to Anatolia?
We've always been in the restaurant business. When we came to Jacksonville in 2012 we looked around at our options to open a restaurant here. We ended up looking closely at two Turkish restaurants and Anatolia fit our style the best, and that's what appealed to us.
5. Why did you decide to buy an existing restaurant instead of starting your own from scratch?
We had done our own restaurant before and it's really expensive. When I saw this restaurant I loved the ambiance and the setup as it was.
6. Did you make any big changes to the menu when you took over Anatolia?
We've kept the previous items and expanded the menu to add some more dishes such as Zucchini Pancakes, Shepherd's Salad and the Beyti Kebab.
7. Why do you have such big portions? Is that typical of Turkish restaurants?
It's important to us that our customers feel good about the food and the value we're providing. We don't want people to leave and think they aren't satisfied or didn't get something fair from us. People can always share an appetizer or dessert. Or they can take home their leftovers, which a lot of people do.
8. Where does the name of your restaurant come from?
Anatolia is the earlier name of what is now the modern Republic of Turkey.
9. How is Turkish food prepared and served?
Turkish food is meant to be very healthy and light tasting. We prepare our meats with flavorful seasonings instead of oils, breading or heavy sauces. When we add a sauce to meat it is often made with a light, garlicky yogurt to complement the meat. We also cook with a lot of healthy vegetables such as mushrooms and eggplant. Our home made dough is served very thin so that the other ingredients don't get lost in a lot of bread. When we serve the meat dish it's normally done with a side of rice, vegetables or salad. We like to serve good portion sizes but we don't want the food itself to feel heavy.
10. What are some of the most well known Turkish foods?
The most famous Turkish dish is the shish kebab. We have many types of kebabs such as lamb, beef, chicken and Adana. Another well known Turkish dish is a donair or gyro. Turkish style ravioli is also very famous, at least in Turkey.
11. What is Turkish style ravioli?
It's a dumpling formed with a thin, handmade dough that's filled with a mixture of ground lamb and ground beef along with Turkish seasonings. The dumpling is crimped to form the ravioli, which is boiled and then served with our home made yogurt and light garlic sauce along with sautéed dry mint. Even though the ravioli is made with dough it is still a very light dish because of how thin the dough is made and because the yogurt sauce is very light tasting and isn't made with a lot of oil or a heavy tomato sauce. It's really delicious!
12. You make your own yogurt?
Yes, we want everything to be fresh and home made.
13. If someone is new to Turkish food - maybe they've had a gyro or a kebab, but that's all - and they come to Anatolia to learn more about Turkish cuisine, what would you recommend they start with?
The first thing is to try one of our appetizers. We have both hot and cold appetizers. Our Hummus is very good. If you've had that before and want to try something different then I'd recommend our fried eggplant appetizer which is served with a tomato sauce. Many people are not familiar with eggplant dishes, or aren't sure about how to prepare eggplant on their own. This is very popular in Turkish cuisine and is a good place to start. If you want a hot appetizer that's a little different, then I'd recommend trying the Zucchini Pancakes. These are made with mashed zucchini, feta cheese, eggs and seasoning. They're fried and then served with our garlic yogurt and a tomato sauce.
Our appetizers are quite large and one appetizer is usually enough for two people. But if you have a few friends with you then trying a few different appetizers or our appetizer combo will give you a good introduction to Turkish food.
For an entree many people want to start with the kebab or the Adana. Even if you've had a kebab before, ours is really delicious and worth trying. If you want something a little different as a kebab then I'd suggest trying the Adana. Adana is named for a city in Turkey. It's a type of kebab that's made from a mixture of ground beef and lamb with added parsley and seasonings. It's cooked on the grill and is very tasty. We don't use oil or breading on the grill so it's very healthy too.
Another interesting entree to try is the Lahmajun. When we first put it out as a special people were asking us what it was, because they'd never heard of it before. It's a Turkish style pizza. The dough, like our flatbread dough, is very, very thin. It's baked with a meat topping made from a combination of ground lamb and ground beef along with tomatoes, garlic and seasoning. There's no sauce like on an American pizza but the meat is very flavorful because it's been well seasoned. It isn't normally made with cheese either, but when people hear that it's like a pizza they sometimes want us to put cheese on it. We will add cheese if you want, but it's really delicious without the cheese too and that's how I'd recommend someone try it for the first time. When people try it they really like it. The name can be hard to remember and pronounce so most people just call it Turkish pizza!
14. What about dessert? What would you recommend for people to try?
We have a Baklava which is a traditional dessert that's very sweet. It comes in four pieces, which is a lot for one person, so you may want to share it. If you haven't had Baklava before then it's a wonderful dessert to try. If you're familiar with Baklava and want to try another Turkish specialty then you really must try our Kunefe. Kunefe is a cheese dish that is baked and served warm. A special, very mild mozzarella cheese is surrounded with a thin phyllo pastry that's been chopped into tiny strands. The phyllo pastry is first cooked with butter in a special pan before the cheese is added. When someone orders the Kunefe we take if from the fridge and cook it for about 15 minutes until the cheese is warm and melted and the phyllo is golden brown. We add a bit of sweet syrup on top and combine it with a hint of cinnamon and a sprinkle of pistachios. The combination gives a buttery crunch on the outside, a smooth creamy cheese on the inside and a sweet, cinnamon and pistachio finish. It's very different and very delicious.
15. What's the most popular dish at Anatolia?
We have a very large menu and there are a number of items that are very popular, depending on the person and what they've tried. I'd say that overall the most popular dishes are the Sultan's Delight, the Mixed Grill of kebabs, the Lahmajun and the Manti, which is the name of the Turkish style ravioli.
16. What's the Sultan's Delight?
It's a famous Turkish dish made with pureed, smoked eggplant. We put cheese and tomato sauce on the eggplant and then grilled beef on top of that. It's a great way to try an eggplant dish while also having more familiar elements like the cheese, tomato sauce and meat. Because of the meat being grilled and all the vegetables, it's not only delicious, but it's also very healthy.
17. What's your favorite dish?
It's the Turkish style ravioli. When I was young my mom was always making it for us. It's quite difficult to make so it's not something I would make myself. When I eat the ravioli I think of my mom. I miss her and her style of cooking.
18. Have there been things that have surprised you by their popularity?
Yes! A few months ago we added two seafood dishes, a Sea Bass and Dorado, a fish that comes from the Mediterranean Sea. When we first put them on the menu people wanted to try them because they looked different. Our servers had to warn people that it was the whole fish - head, tail and everything in between, including the bones! For a lot of people, how we serve the fish is very different so I didn't know what reaction to expect. I have been very surprised because people really enjoy the fish and we've not had anyone who's complained about seeing the whole fish on their plate.
I'm also surprised and excited by how popular the Sultan's Delight, Turkish Ravioli and Lahmajun have been. I knew these were really delicious but I've never seen any of these offered anywhere else in Jacksonville and when you put something out you never know how people will react. But I didn't have to be worried because these dishes have become among our most popular, and that makes me very happy!
19. You feature a lot of flatbreads. Can you tell us about them?
Yes, we make our flatbreads with a very thin, tortilla crust. We have lots of different toppings such as marinara sauce, shrimp, or chicken. Really, whatever people want. It's meant as a hot appetizer, but it's quite big so some people will order it as an entree for one.
20. What's a Shepherd's Salad?
It's a salad that also goes by the Turkish name of Choban Salad. It's a finely chopped salad made with tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, feta cheese, parsley, dill, mint, extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice. It's light and refreshing.
21. What's a Beyti Kebab?
It's a kebab made with ground lamb, seasoned with garlic, red peppers, and parsley. It's served wrapped in a tortilla with grilled tomatoes, yogurt and rice. We originally put it on as a special but people liked it so much that we've added it to the regular menu.
22. What's Saganaki?
It's also called The Flaming Cheese! It's a hot appetizer that's Greek in origin. We use brandy to light the cheese on fire at the side of the table. It's quite a show and everyone yells "opa!" It's very fun when someone orders it.
23. What's Kazandibi?
It's a caramelized pudding dessert that's sweet and light. Very delicious.
24. Do you have many customers who come to Anatolia because they want to learn about Turkish food?
They do more and more now, but for a long time we had people who would come and just stick with the Italian dishes and the pasta. Many people have never really tried Turkish food and aren't familiar with some of the strange names. And sometimes people just have favorite Italian dishes and don't want to try anything else. But we encourage them and tell them that if they like our Italian food they will really love some of our Turkish and Mediterranean food too. If people show an interest then our servers always try to educate them about the different types of Turkish foods we make. We find that once people give one of our Turkish dishes a try then it's not difficult to get them to try more things. We have a lot of regular customers who come in now just to try the different things they've never had before.
25. Where do you get your recipes from?
They are from my husband but based on classic recipes. In Turkey everyone has their own way of making things, even kebabs. Nobody does things the same way. So my husband has developed his own style from what he has learned over the years. In Turkey the food can be spicy so one thing we've done is to lower the level of spice for an American audience. When we first started we had the same level of spice as in Turkey but people were telling us it was too strong for them. It was never really, really spicy but people let us know that they like a certain amount of spice so we've adjusted for that. If someone asks for more spice we can make it in the traditional way for them.
26. Can you tell us about the bar side of Anatolia?
The bar is there for people who want to have a drink or glass of wine with supper. We have live piano music every Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 6 - 9pm, so the bar also provides a nice place where you can relax with a drink and enjoy the music on those evenings.
27. Have you had any big surprises since you've taken over things at Anatolia?
When we first bought the restaurant our servers told us that the summer would be very slow in Jacksonville and that made me a little nervous. But this past July and August have been very busy, so that's a relief and a good surprise. I think that when people heard that the owners had changed they treated us almost like a new restaurant and were curious to come by to see what we were doing. We have a big emphasis on fresh and home made food so I think people have been pleasantly surprised and have been coming back regularly to try different things on our menu.
28. What's your plan for Anatolia?
We are really new right now. We want to see how our level of business will work out. We've seen a very good response but we don't know if that's because we're new. If business continues to be good we'd like to eventually open another restaurant on Beach Boulevard or a location like that. If we do that we will also name the new restaurant Anatolia Grill and Bar and serve similar food as we have here.