Istanbul Grill, which owner Sam Sensel says is the only Turkish restaurant in Arlington, opened quietly five years ago but — surprise! — gradually grew to be a striking success in a part of town that is more associated with chains like Applebee’s and Fridays.
But maybe its success is not so surprising when you consider what the place has to offer: white-tablecloth-but-nonintimidating atmosphere; lovingly prepared, slightly exotic dishes; and prices that make a special meal out something you don’t have to think twice about.
And then there’s the secret ingredient at Istanbul Grill: the warmth of owners Sam and Dido, who treat their regulars — and there are many — like members of their family.
“We are so happy here,” he says.
And that feeling shows. Whether it’s persuading a diner who has never tasted lamb to give the lamb shish a try, or thanking a table of regulars with a “no-charge” appetizer, or modifying a dish for a customer with special requirements, this couple is eager to please.
In the past year, Istanbul has expanded its dining space, adding a back room painted an unexpected Chinese red. Despite the expansion, nearly every table was filled on a recent Thursday night.
The menu has also expanded, with a page of chef’s specials. New items include branzino (a whole fish billed as the Mediterranean sea bass), moussaka, fresh tilapia and an appetizer salad called ezme.
For our meal, we went with a mix of the familiar and the new. The baba ghannouj appetizer ($5.50) is noteworthy for its deep, smoky flavor. Scooped up with triangles of pita, it didn’t last long. Ezme ($5.50) is a finely chopped salad with tomatoes, hot peppers, pomegranate, molasses and olive oil. It was quite spicy, the heat beating out the sweet.
Moussaka ($11.95), always our go-to selection when it’s on a restaurant menu, is prepared at Istanbul in the Greek manner, with a béchamel sauce topping. Sensel explained that, traditionally, Turkish moussaka does not have the béchamel layer, but he thought his customers would expect it. We’re glad he made that decision. We loved the mix of flavors and textures, including the smooth, custardy topping that contrasted with the meat layer.
The beef shish kebab plate ($11.95) had eye appeal, with a diagonal swath of rice dividing the plate into two triangles. In one triangle was the kebab, cubes of marinated tenderloin cooked to a nice medium rare; in the other triangle, fresh veggies.
We had a vegan in tow for our meal, and she was delighted to see a vegetable casserole on the menu ($10.95). It was presented in a beautiful, lidded dish. Dido lifted the lid at the table to reveal a tomato-y melange that was like ratatouille with chunks of potato added.
Lovely sounding desserts beckoned, but we kept ourselves under control and concluded the meal simply with cups of Turkish tea served in delicate glass cups.
You should know: A belly dancer shakes things up Friday and Saturday nights. Discount nights are advertised on the website.