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The Sunday Herald, 7th Jun 2010:  8.5/10

Reviewed by Joanna Blythman:

I don’t think I have ever eaten a duff Turkish meal – not in Turkey, not in the UK.

That’s not to say that Turkish food is always brilliant, just, that as a category, it is pretty reliable. Maybe that’s because the cuisine is essentially time-honoured home cooking, so there’s less to go wrong. In my experience, the more you pay for food in Turkey, the blander and more globalised it becomes. Of course, Turkish restauranteurs here are somewhat hamstrung by ingredients. Try all you like, but identikit Dutch hydroponic peppers and aubergines are never going to taste like the erratically shaped, sun-soaked equivalent piled up in the markets of Ankara, Izmir or Bursa. Our gloopy, sticky yogurt just isn’t the same as the Turks’ marvellous jelly-like dairy delight with its addictive crust and refreshing tang.

I’m a big fan of Turkish food because it has the inbuilt balance that I want. Although the Turks do wonderful things with meat and fish, a Turkish meal is usually vegetable-centric. As was the case with Empires, a bijoux restaurant just off Edinburgh’s tourism-blighted Royal Mile. We left feeling utterly satisfied, yet knowing that we had eaten healthily. My idea of a good meal.

Against all odds, Empires’ owners, who come from the north of the country on the Black Sea coast, have managed to make their restaurant/café feel uncannily like a “meyhane” in Turkey. This translates literally as wine house, but it is better understood as an informal eating place serving meze. The idea is that you spend a whole evening working your way through a list of meze, drinking, talking and listening to live music. Empires’ tall, narrow premises have been done up with considerable Ottoman flair. Benches are slung with rugs, the place is lit with glinting brass and coloured glass lights right out of the bazaar. Walls are hung with a collection of beautiful Iznik ceramics, both modern and antique, creating an atmosphere that feels properly Bohemian and convivial. The mood is Turkey in the 50s, but then, that’s how many meyhanes still feel in Turkey today.

We worked our way through 15 meze. Only one disappointed, the falafels, which are never so enticing served cold as they are when crunchy and blisteringly freshly fried. The borek-spinach and feta-stuffed filo parcels would have been perked up by a more thorough heating too. All the rest were nicely executed. The humus was engagingly smooth and loose, gaining depth from a decisive measure of tahini paste. This sesame paste added to the smoky depths of the haydari, char-grilled aubergines mashed to a dip with yogurt. The cucumber in the cacik had been grated and salted rather than chopped, so it gave body and texture to the yogurt but allowed the mint to shine.

Piquant flavours lent an invigorating strand to the meze line-up. Air-dried sausage, sucuk, tingled the taste buds with spicy, red sensations as did the ezme, vine tomatoes surrendered to garlic, cumin and chilli, and the hibesh, Antalya’s speciality tahini dip, flavoured with lemon and Turkish chilli paste.

Some meze here are simply well-bought, like the marinated artichoke hearts, the olives and the Halloumi cheese, which is served golden-fried and engagingly bendy. The patlican (aubergine) had been given the abundant quantities of oil that this vegetable needs to show well, but like the baked peppers stuffed with feta, these dishes suffer the constant handicap of starting with glasshouse vegetables deprived of sun and soil.

Empires does mean stuffed vine leaves, yielding meat balls in tomato sauce and a comforting musakka which is rather more Greek than Turkish. But the don’t-miss highlights were the nutty meze, acili-crushed toasted hazelnuts with a hot tomato edge, and tarator, the classic Balkan, central Asian dish of walnuts, crushed to a dip with oil.

We missed the musicians – Empires is popular, so we had to go for an early slot – but they were tuning up as we left and looked like the real deal, not some tourist floor show. BYOB and cheap too, Empires is a bit of a gem.

Empires, 24 St Mary’s Street, Edinburgh, EH1 1SU

Tel: 0131 466 0100

Lunch/Dinner £8-18


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