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Opening a restaurant across the street from the Social Safeway is a little like buying in to an expensive condo development. Along with the primo Georgetown digs come all the restrictions, bylaws, and codes of conduct you’re suddenly expected to abide by—the keep-up-with-the-Joneses stuff that constitutes the real price of admission. You belong, like it or not, to a community. A persnickety community.
The owner of Cafe Divan, Cavit Ozturk, appears to know exactly what he has bought in to. The floors of the 70-seat restaurant are of Brazilian cherry and Turkish tile, and they gleam like a showroom. The clean-lined tables and chairs were shipped in from Italy. The glass windows wrap around the dining room, as if this were a boutique and not a restaurant. In the entryway that faces onto the street, Ozturk has placed several whimsical, contemporary sculptures, an unexpected installation designed to draw the eye of browsers trolling the block of galleries and antique and specialty shops. It’s all smartly conceived, and the well-heeled, self-regarding crowds the Turkish restaurant has been attracting are testament to the value of Ozturk’s canny market calculations.
But once you sit down, the level of detail begins to thin considerably. It’s as if all the restaurant’s energy had been expended in getting you in the door. The staff of college-age servers, for example, is so low-key and relaxed, and so inclined to let you linger, that you’re likely to find yourself sitting alone for long stretches of your meal. Even those dishes that tease the imagination with their exoticism arrive with a minimum of flourish—simple, family-style presentations on plain white plates. You soon realize that Cafe Divan is not a temple of style, but rather, a homey, neighborhoody joint that is trying awfully hard to impress. This is, somehow, oddly reassuring. Yet I wish the place tried as hard to impress with its food as with its decor.
Meze would seem to be a strong suit here—the list of small plates is nearly as long as the list of entrees, and, for the knowledgeable eater, there are a couple of pleasant surprises to be found among them. Ozturk, who has worked in restaurants for 25 years in Turkey, England, and this country, and chef Yucel Atalay, most recently of Nizam’s in Vienna, Va., have made authenticity a priority, including on their menu a couple of dishes not commonly found outside of Turkey. Cerkez tavuk, for instance: thick slices of roasted chicken in a velvety walnut sauce. Its presence on the menu is promising, a boast of homespun legitimacy.
But the walnut sauce is too mayonnaisey, and it lacks the garlicky kick that ought to distinguish the dish from plain old chicken salad. The dolmas are oddly flat, and when I reread the description of them on the menu on a return visit, it was as if I were reading about another dish: The addition of currants and pine nuts to the usual rice-and-onions filling had seemed a mere rumor. The hummus is similarly dull—neither oily enough nor acidic enough nor even garlicky enough to stand out.
Underseasoning is a problem at Cafe Divan—which is why the best meze on offer are those that don’t require a lot of nuancing from the kitchen. The patlican salad, a mound of smoked eggplant and tomatoes accompanied by rounds of pita, could benefit from more lemon, but as is the case in any cuisine, smoking conceals a multitude of culinary sins. The sigara borek—pieces of feta rolled in layers of phyllo dough and fried—succeeds because feta, the saltiest of cheeses, needs no seasoning, and because the “cigars” emerge from the hot oil bestowed with a chiplike crunch. The same goes for the tarama, a red-caviar dip with olive oil and lemon juice that’s whisked so fine it resembles a fluff of pink whipped cream. Saltiness, so lacking in other dishes, is not an issue here.
The inspirations for much of the rest of the menu are the restaurant’s rotisserie and wood oven, both of which, thanks to an open kitchen, are never far from diners’ view. Ozturk, a former maitre d’, knows the value of proper placement. It’s too bad that the sight of those twirling slabs of lamb and veal, their juices glistening obscenely—or of the slow, flickering fire that bakes the thin pides, or Turkish pizzas—is often better than the reality on the plate. The tavuk begendili, a generous cut of chicken breast, suffers from too long a stay on the rotisserie. Ditto the kuzu shish kebab. The kuzu pirzola, or lamb chops, on the other hand, avoid dryness, presumably because they’re cooked relatively quickly on the grill.
The wood oven is kept busy turning out nine kinds of pide, for both eat-in and takeout. The crusts are terrific: somewhere between a pita and a thin pizza, and possessing the snap of a wafer. The problem is, the toppings are seldom the equal of the crust. Like the meze, the pides work best with flavors that register instantly: a spicy Turkish pastrami, a spicy Turkish sausage, the smoked eggplant.
Ordering is often an adventure here, and not just because you’ve got to dance around so much of the menu to find satisfaction. A number of dishes are day-specific: doner kebab, for example, which is offered Friday through Sunday only; or su boregi, a savory pastry of feta and parsley served, as the description on the menu notes cryptically, “certain days of the week.” Coban kuzu cevirme, a whole marinated lamb cooked on the rotisserie with wood charcoal, is available only on Thursdays, and I determined after my first visit that when I returned, it would be on a Thursday.
I liked the ritualistic quality of it all, the image of the slaughtered animal slow-cooked on this day—and this day only—for communal delectation. And so I asked some old friends along, not so much because I hadn’t seen them in a while, or even because they happened to be free on a muggy Thursday night, but because they professed to be fans of lamb and so wouldn’t mind going along with my one stipulation: that whatever else we might order, the evening was to revolve around the whole roasted lamb.
The dish arrived, and with it, disappointment: an ordinary-sized plate onto which several hunks of lamb, hacked from the bone, had been deposited, doused with a sauce of onion, oregano, and pan drippings. The meat did not lack for tenderness. On the contrary, it was somehow too tender, too lacking in resistance. It was hard to believe at first that it had been roasted, not braised or stewed. It was almost as hard to believe that it was, in fact, lamb. What was missing was that almost floral delicacy that long, gentle cooking ought to have teased out.
My friend Andre fixed me with a look of mild betrayal. “It tastes,” he said, between bites, “like pot roast. Good pot roast, but still: pot roast.”
Not bad, but not what it purports to be. And that’s Cafe Divan. Take away the tony surroundings and dispense with the modish accouterments and what you have is a neighborhood joint with a bunch of decent dishes and some pretty good ones—not to mention a staff of youngish waiters and waitresses that is not merely warm and friendly but often succeeds in making you feel as though you’d spent your time among friends.
There’s no shame in that. But then, as Ozturk surely knows, there’s not a lot of buzz to be had in it, either. Cafe Divan, 1834 Wisconsin Ave. NW. (202) 338-1747. —Todd Kliman
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to email@example.com. Or call (202) 332-2100, x322.