Talking Turkey: Sultan Kebab turns out dishes with a taste of home

Sultan Kebab owners Serhat Peker and Deniz Dikmen have been serving up traditional
Turkish fare since 2012, and the natives of Turkey are hoping to relocate to the downtown area by this summer. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto Sultan Kebab owners Serhat Peker and Deniz Dikmen have been serving up traditional Turkish fare since 2012, and the natives of Turkey are hoping to relocate to the downtown area by this summer. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto

Sultan Kebab isn’t new. Deniz Dikmen and Serhat Peker, both natives of Turkey, opened the restaurant tucked away in a small shopping center at the corner of Route 29 and Rio Road in 2012. But if you’re like me and don’t often schlep up to that side of town, it’s easy to miss. But partially due to the impending construction at Rio and 29 that will inevitably slow business down, and partially due to a desire to expand, Charlottesville’s only Turkish restaurant may find a new home in the downtown area by this summer.

“No matter what, it’s going to affect our business,” Dikmen said. “We have a lot of repeat customers, but it will be better to get out because of the projects.”

In the meantime, front-of-the-house manager Dikmen and chef Peker—both of whom arrived in Charlottesville about eight years ago with hotel management degrees to work at Clifton Inn—will continue to serve up classic Turkish dishes.

I’ve been craving Turkish food since I returned from a trip to Istanbul. My exposure to the cuisine was fairly minimal, but I did my best to shovel in as much as I could during those 10 days exploring the sea-side cross-section of Asian, European, and Middle Eastern cultures. I learned about Sultan Kebab shortly after my return, but as a downtown dweller who considers a Target run an ordeal, I allowed myself to gradually forget the dishes I’d fallen in love with on the other side of the world. I finally made my way up there last week, and it did not disappoint. Dikmen said the restaurant specializes in meats, “but our goal is to make the best vegetarian and vegan options.” Most of the appetizers are meat-free, like the baked hummus casserole with tomatoes and kashar cheese, the baba ghanoush with homemade pita bread and my personal favorite, the sigara borek, a rolled pastry filled with Turkish white cheese and parsley. (Borek is one of Turkey’s most versatile dishes. Whether the dough is folded like a little calzone, flattened and spread like a pancake, or layered and cut into squares like the ones I inhaled in Istanbul, you really can’t go wrong with the flaky, savory pastry filled with anything from cheese and herbs to meat and veggies.) There’s a Mediterranean vegetarian sandwich served on vegan bread, but for the full gamut, go for the Sultan’s vegetarian plate. It comes piled high with dolma (stuffed grape leaves), hummus, baba ghanoush, tabouleh, rice and salad. If you’re lucky, you may catch them on a day when Peker whipped up a pot of hearty vegetable stew and includes a cup of it with the platter.

“When you put in front of a vegetarian person a plate with 10 different items, they love it,” Dikmen said. “But for me that’s not enough, we want to do more. We want to really surprise people.”

For him and Peker, it’s all about giving people an experience that’s as authentically Turkish as possible, from the pre-meal black tea served in a delicate little glass with two sugar cubes on the side (which I’m pretty sure I had running through my veins by the end of my trip), to the mug of nutmeg-topped rice pudding made from Dikmen’s mother’s recipe. The decorations on the walls, which include ornate carpets, hookahs and Turkish coffee pots, came from the guys’ hometowns of Izmir and Adana, and the owners deliberated extensively over the menu, drawing from the traditional dishes from their hometowns and incorporating old family recipes. Neither of them attended culinary school, but according to Dikmen, food is in their blood. It’s something that’s inherently learned, not necessarily taught.

“The main reason for opening this restaurant was to work for something close to our culture, close to our food,” Peker said. “We cook whatever we love, and we like to share it with the people.”

I couldn’t help but notice that a few of my favorites weren’t on the menu: pide, a cheesy, pizza-like dish served in the shape of a boat; kokorec, a sandwich piled with seasoned chopped lamb intestines; or kunefe, a sweet cheese-filled pastry soaked in syrup. A lot of Turkish staples like these require specialized skills, plus more space than is currently available in the kitchen. They could certainly add kunefe to the dessert menu tomorrow, Dikmen said, but it wouldn’t be authentic or on par with the rest of the menu. But once they move to a bigger place, and if they happen to find the right person to join the team, Dikmen said they may be able to start adding more elaborate items to the menu.

“When we add an item to the menu, we are really careful, because we want to make it really good and really authentic,” Dikmen said. “When we do it, we want to do it with the right timing. That’s why we are proud of every single item on our menu.”

I don’t claim to be an expert on Turkish cuisine or culture by any means, and Dikmen explained that the menu is a collection of dishes from nearly every region of the country. But the 20-minute drive up 29 for a meal of borek, beef and chicken kebabs and rice pudding took me right back to the streets of Istanbul—and I didn’t even have a layover in Amsterdam.