Turkish DelightThe Olive Branch Café Opens in Greenport
The Turkish port city of Izmir, on the Aegean coast, isn’t the first place that comes to mind when you think of Greenport. But you might think otherwise if you were Yusuf Alptekin, a Turkish chef who was born and raised in Izmir. One day, not long ago, he travelled from New York City, where he was then living, to the North Fork for a cycling tour. When he clapped eyes on Greenport and spotted the boats on the bay, he felt as though he’d come home. And then a funny thing happened. He and a friend walked by a courtyard that looked like the kind of enclosure you see in towns throughout the Mediterranean. In this courtyard were three parcels that had been vacant since Hurricane Sandy. Alptekin’s friend, as it happened, knew the property’s owner. One thing led to another and before you knew it, the chef had rented all three spaces and with his wife, Michelle, he opened The Olive Branch Café and Restaurant. As the name suggests, the Alptekins’ nascent little empire consists of two separate venues, each within shouting distance of the other. One is a restaurant with a proper dining room and a comprehensive menu and the other is a café that sells food to go. So now Alptekin and his wife Michelle have a new home and Greenporters have divine food from Izmir, which features Greek, Roman, and Ottoman-inflected vegetable dishes and seafood. Both the restaurant and café are open year-round, seven days a week.
It’s a marvelous little spot with tables in the courtyard which has views over the harbor. In the warmer months, people sit outside and watch the boats and eat spit-roasted lamb and dream of Turkey. A hairdresser works in one of the neighboring shops on the square, and every day at noon, the chef can be seen crossing the courtyard with a plate of food. The hairdresser has a standing order for lunch and Alptekin likes to serve it to her personally, which seems like a very Turkish thing to do. Alptekin has been cooking professionally since he was a boy. He says he was “a little bad kid.” In the summer of his tenth year, to teach him some discipline, his father sent him to work in the kitchen of an uncle’s restaurant. He spent that first summer washing dishes and mopping floors. When he turned thirteen, his uncle hired a dishwasher and promoted his nephew to prep cook. To everyone’s surprise, Alptekin found he enjoyed the work and what’s more, he was good at it.
After travelling and cooking in restaurants throughout the Mediterranean, he pitched up in New York City, where in recent years he has made a name for himself as a restaurant consultant, training chefs in Turkish cookery. He’s been around long enough to know that ingredients matter, and so he imports extra-virgin olive oil (“I pay unbelievable money for this oil,” he says,) labne, or thick strained yogurt, red pepper paste, rosewater preserves, and other staples from Turkey. He’s even hired a pastry chef from Istanbul. This man makes phyllo dough by hand – who does that anymore? – and turns out marvelous baklava fresh every day. Although Alptekin is schooled in classical cuisine, he likes to improvise. Thus he’ll toss sundried tomatoes in a shepherd’s salad, which traditionally consists of little more than flat-leaf parsley, spring onions, olive oil, ripe tomatoes, and barley rusks. “I’m a chef,” he explains. “Not some shepherd sitting on a hilltop six hundred years ago.” And instead of baking his spinach pie, he cooks it by the slice in a very hot grill pan until the cheese melts and the phyllo is crispy. And then there’s his chilled Anatolian yogurt soup, thickened with bulgur and seasoned with dried mint. If you close your eyes when you eat it, you could almost be in Izmir.