Southside’s Middle Eastern dining boom keeps on booming. Following Armenian-inspired Shukah and an outlet of kebab fave Biggie Smalls opening in Windsor earlier this year, newcomer Yagiz brings refined Turkish flavours to South Yarra. Kudos must be given to Tulum in nearby Balaclava (which Yagiz’s owner Murat Ovaz helped set up) for showing us that Turkish cuisine goes far beyond kebabs and gozleme. And now at Tulum’s sleek, playful cousin, Ovaz is putting his spin on classic Turkish dishes.
They certainly got the ‘looks matter in South Yarra’ memo: it’s spacious and light-filled, with a front bar and the restaurant flanked by an open kitchen at the back. Think minimalist Melbourne meets Istanbul bazaar: jars filled with pickled onions line banquettes made comfy by colourful cushions, a lucky 5 lira note hangs on the wall (the Turks are a superstitious bunch), and the room’s centrepiece is a bronze table seating 22. A painting of grandpa Yagiz, whom Ovaz credits for birthing his love of cooking, toes the line between charming and gimmicky.
But the cooking here is the real deal. Turkey’s favourite bar food, ciger (liver) is cooked the way the Albanians do it (these guys are legendary butchers). Cubes of rich lamb liver are pan fried in lots of oil and liberally seasoned with cumin, marjoram, paprika and chervil. Pile it on crisp lavash for crunch and knock back a raki while you’re at it. The borek is likewise standout. Crumbly, buttery pastry encases a creamy mixture of spinach, rainbow chard, capsicum, onion, parsley and spices, with the accompanying house-made yoghurt and velvety smoked Ezine cheese (sheep, goat and cow’s milk cheese aged in salt) transforming this pie from humble to sultanic.
Ovaz flirts with his Black Sea roots in two dishes. The calamari will have you hankering for a Med getaway: a handsome squid is stuffed with more Ezine cheese and herbs, swimming in a pool of wild faro and ink to create a satisfying harmony of sea and earth, salty and savoury. Wash it down with a glass of Kayra Narince, Turkey’s prized white grape, with its pear and grapefruit aromas. Simplicity speaks volumes in the smoked-then-roasted melt-in-your-mouth poussin roosted atop a silky puree of sweet corn, a staple in the Black Sea region, and spiked with drops of cemen (a reduction made from Turkish pastrami and French butter).
A compact menu will bend your rubber arm in favour of dessert. Of course there’s baklava, flaky and sticky and served with chestnut ice cream, but give due consideration to semolina pudding and gullac. In Turkey, this milk pastry imbued with rose water is often served plain, but Ovaz adds gin-infused cherries, orange granita and hazelnuts to create a vibrant and refreshing summertime dessert.
You can get boisterous here (especially after a few rounds of raki) and big groups will no doubt make a beeline for that sexy communal table. But if the flavours aren’t enough to get you scanning Webjet, the bill arriving in a replica of grandpa Yagiz’s passport should ensure your next adventure comes with a Turkish accent.