Restaurateur Hakan Ilhan has opened more than 20 fast-casual eateries, a French bistro, and two upscale Italian restaurants over the past decade or so. But he’s only now delving into the cuisine of his Turkish upbringing with the opening of Ottoman Taverna in Mount Vernon Triangle on May 2. The restaurant is located within a block of two of his other restaurants, Alba Osteria and L’Hommage Bistro Francais.
“I felt that it was time to do a Turkish restaurant that really can be tribute to my own experience back home,” says Ilhan, who grew up in Istanbul. “And I wanted to do it at a level that really deserved the attention and the investment.”
Ilhan says aspires to do for Turkish cuisine in D.C. something similar to what restaurateur Ashok Bajaj did for Indian food with Rasika. “There are a lot of Indian restaurants, but he has been very successful at it,” Ilhan says. “There’s a lot to learn from him.” And like Bajaj, Ilhan is also hoping to tap into the private events market. Ottoman Taverna is built so that various portions of the dining room can be partitioned off for groups.
Ilhan has hired another Istanbul native Ilhan Erkek as executive chef. Erkek comes to D.C. from Naples, Florida, where he worked at a Ritz-Carlton Hotel. He previously worked for the hotel company in Istanbul.
One of the dishes that Ilhan says transports him back to Turkey is manti, little beef dumplings served at Ottoman Taverna with a garlic yogurt, drill, and paprika butter.
“It’s very labor intense. It takes hours to make that pasta,” says general manager Nuray Karatas.
Another mainstay of the menu will be döner kebab (cousin to the gyro and schwarma). Karatas says slicing, marinating, and then layering the meat on the rotisserie is a three-day process.
The centerpiece of the open kitchen is a wood charcoal grill custom-made in Turkey used to cook kebab. A separate oven is devoted to flatbreads known as pide.
Mezze also make up a big portion of the menu—from stuffed grape leaves to chickpea fritters with tahini sauce. Among the less recognizable offerings is a cold shredded chicken dip with candied walnuts and paprika olive oil.
A 12-seat chef’s table—fancily dubbed the “Sultan’s Table”—will be devoted to a 10-course tasting menu with wine pairings. The menu and price are still in the works.
The wine menu spans from Greece to Israel to Croatia and beyond, but Karatas is particularly proud of the Turkish bottles. The restaurant has more than 40 Turkish wines, including many that Karatas says are hard to find in D.C.
When determining the restaurant’s look, Ilhan says he looked at photos of Turkish restaurants around the world. “There isn’t a single one that I want to say, ‘Just do it this way,'” he recalls telling Atlanta-based designer Matt Norris of Norris Design. “I want a restaurant from an American perspective not from a Turkish perspective.”
The dining room has a Mediterranean-esque brightness with honeycomb-shaped light fixtures meant to mimic motifs in Islamic art. An entire wall in the main dining room depicts the inside dome of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, a Greek Orthodox church turned mosque turned museum. But probably the most striking part of the restaurant’s design is the white laser-cut steel wall separating the onyx-topped bar. Additionally, an outdoor patio seats around 40.
Ilhan, always in expansion mode, doesn’t seem to be slowing down either. He’s looking to open another restaurant in downtown D.C.
“I can’t talk about it yet,” he says. “We haven’t put the signature on the lease yet. We are very close though.”
Ottoman Taverna, 425 I St. NW, (202) 847-0395, ottomantaverna.com
Photos by Jessica Sidman