Enter the Elai Restaurant in Uçhisar, Cappadocia, and you’ll think you’re in Istanbul: a warm welcome, gleaming glassware and cutlery on snowy tablecloths, low lights, cool jazz or soft classical music in the background. Smooth service. A sophisticated menu, and a good wine-and-drinks list.
But wait a minute! This could only be Cappadocia. No crowds, no honking cars, no pollution or high prices.Panoramic views of the “moonscape” countryside from the rooftop terrace. A cozy wood fire to sit by and sip a drink while your table is prepared. On many nights, a personal welcome and chat with the owner.
Elai is a big part of what I think of as the “Cappadocian culinary miracle“: sophisticated restaurants in the small farming towns of this top-three Turkish tourist area.
My recent dinner started with a glass of wine by the firewith friends (it was late April, and too cool for al frescodining on the terrace), then an assortment of Turkish meze including stuffed vine leaves (yaprak dolmasi), white sheep’s-milk cheese (beyaz peynir), spicy-hotacili ezme (“hot purée”), cylindrical pastry böreks stuffed with savory ground lamb, vegetables and savory spices, the best smoky eggplant purée (patlıcan ezmesi) I have had in years, and spicy red lentil rissoles (mercimek köftesi).
Consuming those dishes, passed around the table family-style, with plentiful drinks, conversations and some pretty good jokes, took at least an hour.
Then we ordered main courses: Turkish-style filet mignon (bonfile), oven-roasted joint of lamb (tandır) and, for one diner, a symphony of vegetables, of which Turkey produces some of the world’s best.
Dessert was crème brulée with chocolate ice cream in a pastry shell, or a hot chocolate mousse with crème fraîche and chocolate ice cream.
Whaddaya mean I’m not in Istanbul? It was difficult to believe until we left the restaurant to find our cars parked right in front, to hear the occasional rooster crow and donkey bray, and to see the nearly full mooncascading its silver light on the magical mysteries of the Cappadocian countryside.
By the way, if you want to stay the night in Uçhisar, Elai has renovated and decorated several charming cave rooms right next to the restaurant. Then you can admire the view from the roof terrace as much as you like, day and night.
—by Tom Brosnahan