1561 Black Rock Turnpike, Fairfield, (203) 220-9700, erensgrill.com
If you've forgotten that Ottoman cuisine is considered one of the three great cuisines, Eren's Grill will make you remember. Though tucked away in an easily overlooked strip mall in the Tunxis Hill section of Fairfield, Eren's Grill is so much more than a "grab-and-go" falafel joint.
Taste his mixed eggplant. It's smoky and soft, with plump bits of eggplant and hints of spices (cumin? coriander?) and herbs that meld and resonate into a thoroughly satisfying whole. This chef has confidence and a deft hand. His food is lively, fresh, and full of flavor.
They do a lot of takeout, but it's worth sitting down to eat in the small dining room, the walls painted a cheerful shade of red. Order the Adana kebab platter ($13.99). It's a visual treat, the grilled lamb kebab fanned out with blistered green peppers, tomatoes, julienned herb-tossed onion and a pyramid of rice and orzo. It all rests on a square plate lined with a flat wrap that's been showered with red pepper flakes. Yes, the Adana kebab is spicy! The hand-minced lamb is seasoned with red pepper imported from Turkey, and the moist, flavorful meat has a luscious charred flavor from the grill. It's damn good. Could be addictive.
This isn't dumbed-down food for the bland American palate. That thin, hot pepper on the plate? I took a small bite and wow, it was spicy. To cool off, I took refuge in the haydari, thickened yogurt made with feta, garlic and mint. Chef Eren told me it is often served with meat. It was the perfect heat-sopper for the Adana kebab, but I could see that haydari would go equally well with the marinated (but not spicy) chicken or lamb kebabs. Chef Eren's cacik, the classic cucumber and yogurt dish, is also cooling, though tangier, and it seems to go with everything. He makes the yogurt himself.
If you go to Eren's Grill, you will meet Eren Polat. He'll come out of the open kitchen, dressed in chef's whites embroidered with the insignia of the Turkish flag (a white crescent and star against a red background) and tell you about the prepped food in his refrigerator case, the eggplant salads, hummus, and kebabs ready for the grill. The sense of order and cleanliness is just another sign he's a pro. Yet Chef Eren seems so young and enthusiastic, you wonder how he could have been in the restaurant biz for 20 years. Well, he started at age seven, in his hometown of Adana. Adana is, in addition to being a province in Turkey, the country's fourth largest city too, a major agricultural and food processing center in the south, about 18 miles up from where the Seyhan River meets the Mediterranean Sea. Adana is also famous for the Adana kebab, now served in Turkish restaurants over the world.
It's clear Chef Eren has chops, no pun intended. He was head chef of the Athen's Tike. (Tike is an international chain of high-end Turkish restaurants in London, Cyprus and Kiev and other major cities). The dishes on Eren's menu reflect his more elevated — and playful — approach to Turkish food. You'll find dishes at Eren's Grill that you haven't had anywhere else.
Take the classics. Chickpea puree. Eggplant puree. Room temp, ho-hum? Not Chef Eren's warm, yes, warm, fluffy, saffron-hued hummus, lemony, with low spice notes and topped with warm, julienned beef pastrami ($8.99). Soft, smoky, pureed eggplant, seasoned with garlic, herbs and spices, is also served warm, topped with homemade yogurt and sprinkled with pistachios ($6.25). The salad in pomegranate dressing had a light, fruity and sweet accent that made me think "who needs balsamic?" (or what passes for balsamic).
On my second visit, my friend ordered a lamb kebab wrap ($7.99). The chef's choice to use a wrap instead of a traditional pita could be a nod to contemporary, carb-consciousness. When it arrived at our table, we were a bit confused — two brown bags (each containing a half) on a square plate. Maybe they weren't sure if we were going or staying? Maybe they want their customers to be ready to take home the half they're too full to finish? Maybe it's a concept, a take on takeout? We noted that the ladies dining at the table next to use were served a brown-bag lunch too. But once my friend bit into the wrap, all questions were forgotten in an "ummmmmm" of moist, flavorful grilled lamb and crisp lettuce.
If you have room for dessert, try the baklava. Chef Eren makes it himself, of course, and it's rich, buttery, filled with pistachios, and not overly sweet. The rice pudding is imbued with gentle spices. Actually, stopping in for coffee and dessert at 3 p.m. is a good idea.
Portions at Eren's Grill are big, and even after sharing part of my Adana kebab platter, I took half of it home. Lunch the next day? It didn't last that long. There was something about the flavor of that kebab that kept me nibbling. Addictive. I wanted to go back the next day. If you should find yourself similarly afflicted, don't feel embarrassed. Chef Eren will greet you with a smile and welcoming words, "This is your restaurant!"