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Istanbul Grille serves authentic Turkish cuisine

| Friday, April 27, 2012, 2:42 a.m.

Coskun "Josh" Gokalp came to America in 1998 from Istanbul without speaking a word of English or really knowing what he wanted to do.

The 41-year-old spent seven years in New York City, bartending, working in kitchens and learning English. Six years ago, he decided he wanted to cook for a living.

"I went to cooking school in Turkey, but I didn't like to work in the kitchen," says the pony-tailed Gokalp. "It's more fun in the bar."

That changed when he visited friends in Pittsburgh a few years ago, liked the city, and found out there was not one Turkish restaurant in the area. He opened the Istanbul Grille in Shadyside nearly two years ago, and a Downtown location in February of last year. The Shadyside location closed, and he moved his operation to Lawrenceville three months ago.

"Pittsburgh is still a growing city, not like New York," he says. "This is the first Turkish restaurant in Pittsburgh. The Downtown location is open for lunch only and is doing very well."

The Istanbul Grille on Butler Street in Lawrenceville is large and airy, with gold walls, high ceilings, hardwood floors and colorful booths and tables that seat 60. Artifacts from all over the world hang on the walls. The rear of the restaurant boasts an authentic Turkish lounge that can seat 100, with cushiony seats lined against the gold and purple walls and scattered cushions in the middle of the lounge. Live music plays every weekend, and there are frequent floor shows with belly dancers.

"There is a big Turkish community in Pittsburgh," Gokalp says. "This has been very popular. Weekends are the busiest."

Gokalp hired a manager, Mindy Adleff, to oversee his two locations. The Lawrenceville resident says everything was in place when they got the new location.

"It had been a coffee shop with a music venue," says Adleff, 34. "It used to be a general store many years ago. We get a huge mixture of customers, all different ages and backgrounds. We have a lot of private parties here and are starting a kids' dance party at the end of January that will be held once a month."

Istanbul Grille's menu is not extensive, but it encompasses what Turkish cuisine is all about. Turks use many vegetables, not too many spices, and simple preparation for their dishes, Gokalp says. Because Turkey is a Muslim country, they don't eat pork but they do consume lamb, chicken, beef and seafood. However, the meat has to come from a Halal butcher, Gokalp says.

"I have my own local butcher who is Turkish," he says. "Halal is a way of butchering the animal, much like kosher food for Jewish people."

The appetizers include stuffed grape leaves, hummus, yogurt with cucumbers, bulghur wheat with tomato and green onions, smoked eggplant, and kidney beans with tomatoes, carrots and potatoes. Gokalp offers four vegetarian platters, including zucchini pancakes, marinated or sauteed vegetables, and grape leaves stuffed with rice.

The entrees feature chicken sauteed with onions, peppers, garlic, mushrooms and tomatoes; lamb mousakka (eggplant with tomatoes topped with ground lamb, onions and peppers); and lamb ribs simmered in a fig and red wine sauce. He has two seafood dishes -- salmon topped with apples, butter, white wine, lemon and garlic; and mussels, scallops and shrimp simmered with white wine, garlic and onions.

"We use no frozen or canned foods -- everything is made from scratch every day," Gokalp says. "I go to the Strip District every day by myself to buy fresh vegetables. If you want something good, you have to work for it."

He even makes the homemade desserts, offering baklava, rice pudding, chocolate mousse and a vanilla-based pudding topped with caramelized butter and sugar.

"I do the menu by myself and I change it all the time," he says.

Gokalp loves being in the restaurant business but admits that it can take a toll.

"I don't have a life, but I'm enjoying what I'm doing," Gokalp says. "The best part is meeting people. A lot of customers have become good friends. They become like family."

Karni Yarik (Eggplant Stuffed with Lamb)

This is Coskun "Josh" Gokalp's family recipe for eggplant stuffed with lamb. His mother is a good cook, he says, and serves eggplant at least two or three times a week. She still lives in Turkey.

"Everyone thinks we eat shish kebabs all the time in Turkey," Gokalp says with a laugh. "But we eat a lot of veggies, especially eggplant. This is a very popular dish here."

For the eggplant:

• 2 eggplants, hollowed out and skinned

• Salt, as needed

• Lemon juice, as needed

• 1/4 cup olive oil or corn oil

For the stuffing:

• 1/2 pound ground lamb or ground beef

• 1 tablespoon corn oil

• 1 medium-size onion, chopped

• 2 cloves garlic, chopped

• 2 tomatoes, chopped

• 1 sweet green bell pepper, chopped

• 2 tablespoons pepper paste (such as Salonika, which can be found in Greek stores in the Strip District)

• 1/2 teaspoon salt

• 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

• 2 tablespoons fresh chopped parsley, for garnish

To prepare the eggplant : Sprinkle the eggplants with salt and lemon juice. Heat the oil in a large saute pan until it's hot, and add the eggplants. Keep turning the eggplants so each side is cooked ( see Photo 1 ). Cook for 2 minutes per side. Set aside.

To prepare the stuffing : Cook the lamb or ground beef in corn oil for 5 minutes. Add the chopped onions to the meat ( Photo 2) . When the onions are soft, add the garlic. Stir around for a minute, then add the tomatoes and cook for 2 minutes. Add the bell pepper and cook for another 2 minutes ( Photo 3 ). Add the pepper paste ( Photo 4 ) and incorporate thoroughly. Add the salt and black pepper last, or the meat will get tough.

Scoop the mixture into the eggplants and bake in a 350-degree oven for 12 minutes.

Garnish with fresh chopped parsley and serve immediately.

Makes 2 servings.

Additional Information:

Istanbul Grille

Cuisine : Turkish

Hours : 5-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturdays, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays

Entree price range : $9.99-$23.50

Notes : Accepts reservations. No credit cards accepted. Handicapped-accessible. BYOB, with a $4 corkage fee per bottle. Authentic Turkish lounge in back that seats 100, with live music every weekend. Weekly specials.

Address : 4130 Butler St., Lawrenceville

Details : 412-683-1623 or Web site

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