Namak restaurant review: Vibrant takes on Turkish, Greek and Iranian food – The Washington Post

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On the way to opening Namak in Adams Morgan, Saied Azali says he looked at more than 30 candidates to lead the kitchen of his dream restaurant. One of them, Turkish native Tolgahan Gulyiyen, stood out for serving something seemingly simple at his tryout with the longtime restaurateur and assorted volunteer judges.

Credit the bread.

“Hire him!” cried Azali’s friend, Mark Furstenberg, the owner of the beloved Bread Furst bakery, after tasting the chef’s tombik pide and lavash, fresh from the oven.

End of carousel

The candidate, 35, came to the audition with an admirable résumé, having cooked at Nostos in Tysons, Kazan in McLean and Zaytinya in Washington and having worked in restaurants since he was 14. Making food was practically in his blood. Gulyiyen’s late father served as chef for Tansu Çiller, the first female prime minister of Turkey, and taught underlings to cook for ambassadors and others. But it was bread that first seduced Azali’s assembly that day more than a year ago and bread that launches dinner at Namak, whose name is the Persian (and Hindi) word for “salt.”

In ancient times, says Azali, “salt was expensive.” Hosts offered guests salt as “a sign they really liked them.”

Namak opened in March, replacing the decade-old Mintwood Place with a menu gathering ideas from Turkey, Greece and Azali’s homeland of Iran. As you might expect of such a union, dips occupy prime real estate. Namak’s hummus emphasizes lemon over garlic, a detail Gulyiyen says he picked up while cooking in Greece, and a whip of goat cheese, cream and milk uses a swirl of honey to balance the tang. The drama award goes to a pink-purple puree of beets and yogurt blended with garlic and lemon that eats like a cloud. A paper sleeve of warm, bun-shaped pide accompanies the spreads. One tear of bread leads to another, and all too soon, the roll and the dips are gone.

You may be sorry to see them go, but other appetizers vie for your affection. Octopus, for instance. Gulyiyen bakes it low and slow with red wine vinegar, peppercorns and bay leaf, then grills the octopus, arranging bite-size pieces on a vivid puree of carrots infused with lemon juice, olive oil and a housemade garlic paste that finds its way into a number of dishes here. The appetizer, garnished with capers, swings from sweet to sour and may be the best octopus in town right now.

Early-morning walks around Adams Morgan during the pandemic put Azali in contact with neighbors, “mostly women walking dogs,” who he figured would help fill his future restaurant’s seats. (The restaurateur co-owns Namak with business partner John Cidre and also runs the Japanese retreat Perry’s next door, where Azali says women are 80 percent of his customers, “even to drag brunch.”) The operator thinks women tend to eat healthfully, and he knew vegetables would be a big part of Namak. “The neighbors are the most important people,” says Azali, who also sets aside 12 indoor seats for walk-ins.

In fact, the vegetables are wonderful. One appetizer in particular would make me a regular: kuru patlican dolmasi. The chef buys eggplant from Turkey that’s been dried in the sun and stuffs it with rice, lentils and bulgur seasoned with minced red pepper, dried mint and cumin. The shine and sass on the surface is a luscious blend of pomegranate molasses, tomato and pepper pastes. What’s to stop some fun on the tongue? Even the simpler shepherd salad is a pleasure of little gem lettuce tossed with red onion, feta cheese and cherry tomatoes and dressed with lemon and sumac — sunshine on a garden. And the side dishes include a glorious spinach cooked with onion, nutmeg and butter, and green beans cooked the Greek way, sautéed to collapse and flavored with onion and tomato sauce.

The one dish on the menu both Azali and Gulyiyen grew up with is the zucchini cutlet, which both their mothers made at home. Shredded zucchini is seasoned with herbs and scallions, bound with egg and flour and pan-fried to a light crisp, then displayed as four savory pancakes over a carpet of yogurt, lemon and garlic confit.

The dish dearest to Azali is kebab torsh, a reminder of travels to northern Iran with his father, a Christian missionary doctor. Picture chunks of beef tenderloin lined up beside an equally neat row of a glossy pepper, cherry tomatoes and a little nest of shaved onions spiked with sumac. Better yet, taste the assembly. The bites of meat, tender and lightly charred, burst with flavor from their paste of ground walnuts, herbs including cilantro and mint, and pomegranate molasses. When Azali, who roams the restaurant like a goodwill ambassador, tells me a fellow Iranian cried after eating the dish, I nod in understanding. The kebab of ground lamb also demonstrates the chef’s skill. Gulyiyen butchers the meat himself, using fat near the tail and leg of lamb, which he combines with paprika and peppers. The finished product lounges on flatbread, which absorbs the juices of the kebab. All sponges should taste so good.

Azali went to Turkey half a dozen times before opening Namak, as much to eat as to shop. The design at their new restaurant benefits from his many souvenirs: handsome tiles, lamps and woven rugs. Thick ropes and what appear to be slender wood beams decorate the ceiling. Looks are deceiving, though. The reason you can hear yourself think is because the owners paid $100,000 for acoustic panels disguised as rafters. The prized seats are the white banquettes nestled in the front windows, which allow for both privacy and people-watching. The large script on the wall is a Persian toast: “To your health,” it reads.

The most intriguing main course is blanched cauliflower whose florets are plucked from the head, fried to a pale golden color and reassembled like a puzzle. A dusting of za’atar and turmeric and an underliner of tahini, golden raisins and tart barberries makes for exceptional eating. But what’s simple is also sublime. Roasted chicken, with its whisper of oregano and crisp, lemon-kissed potatoes, tastes like Sunday supper on the Aegean.

Braised lamb shank, in contrast, is the surprise bore at the table. The fist of meat, draped in a complex cloak of saffron, garlic, cinnamon — a spice cabinet, really — rises from a bed of chickpeas and beans and falls easily from the bone, just as a server promised. But the dense lamb is the one instance where salt seems to be absent. Here and there, the open kitchen appears to over-promote the restaurant’s name. One night it’s grilled marinated shrimp that suffers from an overdose of sodium. Another dinner, a dip of whipped fish roe and olive oil has us chasing it back with oceans of water. A proper taramasalata should suggest the sea, not a deer lick.

The chef keeps regulars coming back with specials that merit more play time. If the entree returns, scallops bedded on orzo, yellow with saffron and rich with cream, deserve your attention. So do the desserts. They include a fine, syrup-soaked semolina cake and a rice pudding whose brown skin gives way to a cool, snow-white interior of rice suspended in milk and cream. From the bar — my destination when I walk in without a reservation — flow distinctive drinks. Namak 75 is a particularly refreshing swirl of gin, lemon, apricot and fizzy wine, while the clever Saz’arak (get it?) — bourbon, dates, arak and toasted sesame — packs the punch promised by our server. “Mediterranean moonshine,” she described the cocktail.

Azali says he’s been waiting to open a restaurant that reflects his part of the world for as long as he’s been in the business. The only thing keeping him from what he calls his legacy restaurant was the proper chef. Gulyiyen seals the deal, and the neighborhood — indeed, the city — is better for Namak.

1813 Columbia Road NW. 202-234-6732. namakdc.com. Open for indoor and outdoor dining 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday, and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Prices: Appetizers $5 to $16, kebabs and main courses $18 to $35. Sound check: 70 decibels/Conversation is easy. Accessibility: A door to the right off the entrance admits wheelchair users, and seven indoor tables can accommodate them; restrooms are ADA-compliant.

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