Sultan Kebab offers a feast for all of the senses

Sultan Kebab, off the Downtown Mall, serves authentic Turkish cuisine. Photo by Tom McGovern Sultan Kebab, off the Downtown Mall, serves authentic Turkish cuisine. Photo by Tom McGovern

When I asked Lampo’s Ian Redshaw to name the best restaurant in Charlottesville, his answer surprised me.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Sultan Kebab. Even when it was hidden in a nondescript location off U.S. 29 North, I named it to The Charlottesville 29, my list of Charlottesville’s essential restaurants. Now that it has moved to a gleaming new building downtown (333 Second St. SE) and expanded its menu, it is even more worthy of praise. What was once a homey strip mall denizen is now an immaculate, airy restaurant with an entire wall covered by a spectacular mural of Turkish landmarks.

But, still. A chef like Redshaw? At 28, the Culinary Institute of America graduate who once ran L’etoile’s kitchen and now co-owns Lampo is one of Charlottesville’s brightest young talents. His passion for cooking runs deep, as he spends his free time conceiving and executing elaborate 14-course private dinners. Sultan Kebab is wonderful, but, for all its glory, it is not a mecca of culinary experimentation. It’s traditional Turkish cuisine.

To learn what makes Sultan Kebab Redshaw’s favorite, I joined him for a feast there. And, while Redshaw was eloquent, he need not have uttered a word. The food said it all. Dish after beautiful dish made the case, dazzling our palates, and our eyes, too.

Ian Redshaw, co-owner of Lampo, says the crust on Sultan Kebab’s lahmacun appetizer is “so light and crispy it reminds me of pizza on the South Side of Chicago.” Photo: Tom McGovern
Ian Redshaw, co-owner of Lampo, says the crust on Sultan Kebab’s lahmacun appetizer is “so light and crispy it reminds me of pizza on the South Side of Chicago.” Photo: Tom McGovern

A silver bowl of baba ghanoush would not be out of place at a museum of modern art—milky white, studded with purple hues, and strewn with specks and smears of scarlet. It’s delicious, too. Smoky eggplant, roasted over an open flame, is chopped finely and mixed with tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and homemade yogurt, topped with paprika. A common Turkish ingredient, eggplant also stars in Redshaw’s favorite dish, koz patlican. Thin medallions of chilled, roasted eggplant flesh sit in olive oil, lemon juice and garlic, each piece topped artfully with a rectangle of roasted red pepper. “Perfect,” said Redshaw. “Super balanced.”

Another appetizer, lahmacun, is a thin round piece of dough, the size of a dinner plate, topped with minced beef, onions, tomatoes and parsley, baked, and served with shredded lettuce and lemon. “As a pizza enthusiast I love this,” said Redshaw, who slings world-class Neapolitan pies at Lampo. “The crust is so light and crispy it reminds me of pizza on the South Side of Chicago.”

Behind all of this great food are Deniz Dikmen and Serhat Peker, Turkish natives with backgrounds in hotels and hospitality, who first came to the U.S. in 2006, and met while working at the Clifton Inn. In 2012, they opened Sultan Kebab to showcase family recipes from Peker’s hometown of Adana and Dikmen’s Izmir.

Their favorite dishes are the signature platters, available either vegetarian or with a choice of grilled Turkish meats, and I challenge anyone to keep his mouth dry while gazing at one. Each is a large white oval plate crammed with goodness—long-kernel basmati rice, slowly cooked in butter, canola oil and chicken stock (no stock is used for the vegetarian platter’s rice); creamy homemade hummus; and a refreshing salad in a light dressing of 25 percent olive oil, 25 percent fresh lemon juice and 50 percent pomegranate molasses. Platters also include pita bread made by a Turkish woman who has been with the restaurant since it opened. Among all of the wonderful things at Sultan Kebab, this fluffy bread is the one thing I must eat on every visit.

The vegetarian platter includes samples of the restaurant’s great vegetable dishes, like baba ghanoush, bulgur pilavi and kisir—a tabbouleh dish that rivals any I have had anywhere. Among the meats, the Adana and Izmir kebabs are both stellar, each offering ground beef blended with different seasonings—red-pepper paste for the Adana, and cumin and onions for the Izmir. But, Peker, who runs the kitchen, is partial to the lamb kebab—grilled cubes of leg of lamb, marinated in red-pepper paste, paprika, homemade yogurt and olive oil. It pairs perfectly with a red blend called Doluca Karma, says Dikmen. And, he should know. The certified sommelier once oversaw Clifton Inn’s wine, and Sultan Kebab’s list of beers and wines, drawing largely on Turkey, is so well-chosen that Redshaw calls it an “amazing discovery.” The Doluca Karma blends cabernet sauvignon and a Turkish grape called okuzgozu, with “hints of the sea air and beautiful fruit.” Redshaw said it was an ideal complement to the lamb.

Dessert was doubly delicious. Ice-cold rice pudding is “nostalgia in a bowl,” said Redshaw, achieving something he strives to do with his own cooking: take a diner to a memorable time in his life. Even better was künefe, Redshaw’s favorite dessert in town. Fresh mozzarella is encased in tiny shreds of phyllo dough, baked and drizzled with a sugar-syrup with a hint of lemon. “Totally blew my mind,” said Redshaw.

As a chef, when Redshaw dines out, what he seeks most is food grounded in others’ experiences that he cannot replicate at home. Sultan Kebab nails it. “I have had almost all of the entrées as platters or sandwiches,” says Redshaw. “And, they are all awesome.”

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