That Old Sea Salt

Now you see him. Now you don’t. Orhan Yegan is that Turkish pop-up doll, the Zelig of the grilled octopus circuit. If you only discovered him extolling his own virtues while overseeing the sensational food at Beyoglu in 2002 before he got fired for annoying the customers…If you have only followed him devotedly from Beyoglu banishment to Effendi, Devane and most recently Sip Sak, you cannot imagine the existential drama of his tortured spiritual voyage.

Surely he is the century’s most passionate and peripatetic ambassador of the Turkish kitchen. And if he seems unfulfilled it’s because it’s his vision of Turkish food he wants us to love, not our innocently myopic transliteration.

"Where has Orhan gone?" a fan emails me. "He wasn’t at Sip Sak. The waitress was rather vague."

His latest docking is at Sea Salt, just around the corner from Jewel Bako on a funky stretch of lower Second Avenue yet to reflect the blush of pretty packaging that will surely follow the real estate ambition that has the Lower East Side quaking. Alongside the tack and grime, Yegan’s newest port is a little gasp of style with its sleek white façade, pots of spiky tree branches painted to look like coral, tables tumbling onto the sidewalk.

Inside all is cool and bright, with posters of blown-up black and white photographs by a Turkish photographer and toward the rear, inside refrigerated glass, a cache of sea creatures surf the ice – a monster salmon, a small school of sardines, snapper and bass, clusters of calamari, a cross section of swordfish as big as a tree stump. And there, caught mid-stride, smiling shyly, the driven wanderer himself, scrawny as always in a midnight dark t-shirt and baseball cap. With his straggly locks, weeks of shadowy cheek stubble and single white latex glove he is a hybrid of Michael Jackson and Charles Manson.

Yegan wheels and disappears into the kitchen, trotting out again with what looks like a thousand candles on a birthday cake. Good god…it’s a flaming salt-baked something. He races to the lucky table. Frankly, I have had fish baked in a coffin of salt in many countries, including al fresco on the Bosporus where a dozen hammers pounded, shattering salt crusts all around. How could you order anything else when that was what JFK, Jr. and Carolyn were fed on their honeymoon? I’ve yet to taste one that wasn’t overcooked. So we’ll skip the fireworks.


Anyway, we’re sampling meze and I’m not impressed, except by an excellent riff on the usual grilled octopus (at $14.50 it costs a lot more than $1 an inch), perfectly crisp and grease free spinach borek, and minced mussels with rice and pine nuts rolled inside cabbage that gets high points from the aggressive half of our fussy eaters. Can these pitiful spreads be inspired by the same passionate chauvinism that got our long-time favorite Beyoglu going? This pallid fava bean puree, the pasty spinach-infused yogurt, the unthrilling taramasalata are more dead sea than Bosporus.

Where are all the Turkish meze we’re wild about? The sublime variations in eggplant, the peppery esme, the classic stuffed grape leaves…can you really be Turkish and forbear hummus? Of course I don’t have to ask. Orhan once announced a new restaurant with the challenge that he would skip almost all the usual starters and spotlight entrees because people love meze too much and don’t give proper respect to the real Turkish cooking. I can’t recall what it was about moussaka, why he wouldn’t have it on the menu at Beyoglu -- ignorant Americans don’t love it enough or love it too much most likely. But we begged and ordered ahead and he made some one evening just for us and it was fabulous. Now he wants us to commit to whole fish.

After all, as he told Robin Raisfeld and Rob Patronite at New York magazine, he invented grilling fish whole in l994 at his long gone restaurant Deniz, before Milos got the franchise. Alas, he was ahead of his time. "The people didn’t want fish with bones then. Now they are ready for me."

I remember him at Deniz in a Letterman tee, my guest enthusing over the wonderfully lemony sardines wrapped in grape leaves. "No one knows more about Turkish food than I do," he responded and, of course, we were amused. I asked why he had sold his first much-loved venture – the lush red Turkish Kitchen where I had swooned years earlier over iman bayaldi – a beatification of eggplant named for the emir who allegedly swooned himself.

It was simple. "I got too many write-ups," he complained. "Some were inaccurate. The people’s view was wrong. They were not there for the Turkish cuisine. They didn’t know what they were eating. They didn’t care what they ate. It was too successful." People wanted him in Boston. But Boston didn’t fulfill his need either. He went back to Turkey but Miami beckoned. Miami turned out to be trickier than expected. "Miami isn’t ready for us," he soon told his partner.

Tonight he is serving plump rolls and fat baguettes warmed in the oven, smartly crusty, hardly a crime, but for me something is definitely missing. "Where is that wonderful bubbly bread everyone loves?" I ask him. I personally am a fool for that hot-out-of-the-oven puffy disc they bake at Beyoglu now that Orhan is gone. My question is like a stab in the heart. Here he is -- his stash invested in the most perishable commodity – fish – determined to give you and me the true Turkish experience. Why must I torture him? his eyes seem to say.

"You do not get that bread with fish in Turkey," he explains patiently. "You get what I am serving."

"But Orhan, it’s so delicious. And everyone loves it."

"I don’t want to be American style Turkish. If any Turkish man comes in to my restaurant, I cannot be faking it. "

It’s not like I am ever going to influence Orhan Yegan to cater to our appetite for occasional inauthenticity. His genes are wired for stubborn wandering. Happily, tonight the sea bass ($25) and the monstrous red snapper ($50 for two) both have that amazing sweetness of impeccable freshness…and are judiciously cooked – "rarish," I said, and that explains why it is a bit difficult to actually lift the spine out of the fish to bone it properly. They appear rather ad- libbed…each sprawled on its oval serving plate with a handful of undressed mesclun.

Mashed potatoes, fabulous baby arugula salad and a big plop of amazingly delicious spinach arrive unbidden. The almond pudding is classic but a goblet of fresh summer fruit is an ideal finale. I delight in my first white peach of the summer.

What does he do to the spinach? I ask over the phone the next day. And isn’t $9.50 a lot for a side dish of spinach?

Ahhh... I have pushed the spinach-master button. He is off. "Do you know how much spinach you have to start with to get that much spinach on the plate? I am the only one to cook the spinach," he announces. "It takes two hours every day just to cook the spinach. First the boiling. Then to cool it. Then to squeeze the water. You have to see you are squeezing the real water, not the spinach water. Then you have to make it taste good because spinach itself does not really taste good. I add olive oil and salt and pepper and shallots I have already cooked and dill. Mix in the dill."

Agreed, Yegan’s ice bank of sea creatures is still modest. He can’t anticipate yet how many fish he will sell in a day. He knows that if he orders too much he will be feeding the garbage. He plans to add a few new items every week while he builds strength. Leila, a woman who worked with him at Deniz is back: a cheerleader of excitement for this latest effort. She is a hand-maiden to his flaming salt runs from the kitchen. I watch them race down the aisle. And the glove? Clearly a bow to health department regulations for fish innard browsings.

This is not just a restaurant; it’s a mission, baby.

99 Second Ave. near 6th Street 212 979 5400

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To Sleep Aloft, Perchance to Dream

If you have been keeping up with BITE this summer, you'll see we are back from Argentina. One day soon I will post more about what we ate – about great ice cream and earnest pizza, about creative cooking and a six-day drive we took in the dizzying heights of the Andes around the colonial town of Salta. I’ll post it in Travel with photographs by the Road Food Warrior.

Now I have to tell you about one of the best discoveries of our summer retreat – the amazing new business class sleeper seats on American Airlines. I’d heard something about new near-flat sleep but I wasn’t counting on it. Recent long-distance flights on an assortment of ambitious airlines, including American, have pretended to let you stretch out but invariably my calves end up painfully pressed against the end of the foot rest, feet dangling, neck drooping, head lolling into the aisle.

But as we headed toward the Tropic of Capricorn July 1 after takeoff from JFK, a quick supper and an AmbienCR, I watched my guy pressing buttons, his upper body tilting way back toward the floor inside his leather padded partition and his feet sliding forward under the seat ahead. In other words – no intrusion into the passenger space behind. I quickly popped my sleeping pill, slipped on the mask under the sound-blotting Bose earphones and pushed every button in sight.

I felt myself dropping down toward the floor, body stretching out…feet totally cradled. I could actually sleep in my favorite, modified fetal position. And instead of a blanket, there was a shrink-wrapped quilt that would have been fine camping out in wintry Argentina.

I will confess I have a special place in my heart for American Airlines because they are the official airline of Citymeals-on-Wheels and fly several dozen chefs into town each year for our annual garden party in Rockefeller Center, not to mention the glamorous trips they help us auction. But I’m a travel tramp. I usually take the flight that’s cheapest, though direct and non-stop are tempting too. American had both to Buneos Aires from JFK and on our January trip to Tokyo.

We slept through breakfast (which isn’t me at all) and woke in time to have coffee before we landed. I can ‘t remember what I dreamed. I am sure my dreams were sexy. Or maybe chocolate.

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