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Not Your Mama’s Turkey : Tosh’s Mediterranean fare is served with Istanbul flair.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Two hundred years ago, Turkey ruled an empire stretching from North Africa to Central Asia. Its capital, Istanbul, was (as it still is) a food-obsessed city that created a culinary style that influenced the entire eastern Mediterranean.

The only place in the Southland to glimpse this sophisticated cuisine is a nondescript building on a commercial stretch of Beach Boulevard in Huntington Beach. Tosh’s Mediterranean Cuisine is pleasant enough inside, though. The dining room is swathed in curtains, the walls splashed with posters of Turkey, the floors covered with plush carpets.

The backgrounds of owners Erdem and Esin Denktas reflect Turkey’s enormous cultural diversity. Erdem was born in the southern Turkish city of Izmir and educated in the Turkish republic of Cyprus. Esin, his wife and the head chef, is a Turk of Egyptian and Syrian descent.

Only recently did the restaurant start using the Turkish names of dishes on its menu. Spanakopita, the familiar Greek spinach filo pie, is now ispanak borek; the torpedo-shaped Arab meatball called kibbeh has become icli kofte.

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A Turkish meal always begins with appetizers (mezeler), and this menu lists about 30. You may never get to the main courses.

One of the most delicious is pirasa, bite-sized pieces of leek cooked with carrots, tomatoes, onions and a bit of rice and lemon juice. It’s served cold and goes wonderfully with ezme, a vegetable puree laced with cayenne pepper (it’ll leave your mouth smoking). Another good one is pancar salata, thinly sliced beets in creamy garlic yogurt.

I’m also a reasonably big fan of the white bean salad beyaz (here spelled “piyaz”), the beans are mixed with onions, tomatoes and parsley in a vinaigrette. The menu used to list patlican salata as baba ghannouj. It’s a straightforward smoky eggplant puree, laced with parsley, tomato and garlic, but, as far as I can tell, none of the sesame tahineh of the Arab baba ghannouj.

The hot appetizers are, if anything, even more seductive. No one who comes here should miss the sigara borek, delicately crisp filo pastry rolled around a filling of feta cheese and fresh spinach. The tongue-twisting, sumptuously good yogurtlu patlican kizartma is slices of fried eggplant layered with broiled green bell peppers, in tomato sauce and a mouth-filling yogurt garlic sauce.

An even richer choice would be meat dolmades (in Turkish, etli yaprak dolmasi). In Greek restaurants, the grape leaves are rolled around a rice-based filling, which may or may not have a little ground meat mixed in. But at Tosh’s, the filling is pure spiced beef, which makes the dish seem heartbreakingly luxurious.

In addition to the above appetizers, a number of off-menu choices can be had with a few hours’ notice. One I love is cerkez tavuk, or Circassian chicken. This is a cold dish that looks, at a cursory glance, like a dip. It’s actually finely minced chicken meat kneaded with bread crumbs, garlic, crushed walnuts and a little hot pepper. Tosh’s version is drier than most, with the texture of deviled chicken. It is devilishly delicious.

Another special dish you should consider requesting is bakla, which is fava beans simmered with yogurt, dill and olive oil. The sensuous, earthy beans are delightful in their simplicity.

The main courses are not merely kebabs. Unfortunately, there is no seafood, although fish is an integral part of the Turkish kitchen, at least in the coastal regions. (Erdem says he can’t easily get the proper Mediterranean fish). Fried smelts and sauteed shrimp are there on the appetizer menu, but if you want great Turkish seafood, you’ll have to head for Manhattan, or even Istanbul.

One of the homiest main dishes here is kuru fasulye etli, lamb sauteed with white beans, peppers and rice. There’s also a good garlic-studded baked lamb shank, though it’s not quite as tender as I’d like.

As for Tosh’s kebabs, all I can say is, come hungry. The Adana kebab (available mild or spicy) is plenty of ground beef seasoned with onions, mint, peppers and herbs and formed into a sort of sausage on the skewer. It looks rather like an Indian seekh kebab.

Gyros kebab, which the menu describes as a specialty of Greece and Turkey, is sliced from a giant mass of meat browning eternally on a vertical electric spit. Have it Iskander style, with the meat slices served on chunks of grilled pita doused in yogurt sauce, the whole shebang topped with a richly spicy tomato sauce.

Esin’s favorite, Izmir kofte kebab, consists of small grilled patties of minced beef and lamb, smothered with spicy tomato sauce and grilled peppers. There is also a fairly classical version of lamb shish kebab, again not quite as tender as it could be.

Finally, the restaurant makes a variety of Turkish desserts: good pistachio baklava, a syrup-drenched pound cake (revani) rich with nuts and sutlac firinda, here called burnt rice pudding. This last is a sticky square of pounded rice topped with lots of cinnamon.

But the real high point here is the kunefe, a wild, rich, delicate cousin of the Greek kataifi--a pastry like shredded wheat filled with sweetened goat cheese, served buttery and sizzling hot in a steel dish. Denktas says Turks come from all over to eat this dessert. And who knows what that could mean, considering how vast Turkey’s empire once was?

Tosh’s Mediterranean is moderately priced. Appetizers are $3.95 to $7.95. Main dishes are $9.95 to $14.95.

BE THERE

Tosh’s Mediterranean, 16871 Beach Blvd., Huntington Beach. (714) 842-3315. Lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 12-2:30 p.m. Saturday; dinner 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 3-10 p.m. Sunday. American Express, MasterCard and Visa.


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