- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 2, 2003

The Turkish word divan means sofa; it also signifies a meeting place. Either meaning is apt for the little Cafe Divan, on the ground floor of a flatiron building where 34th Street angles off Wisconsin Avenue NW, just above Georgetown. It's a charming Turkish restaurant with large panes of glass running the length of both sides of the dining room.
Postage-stamp-size tables (actually one or two too many for the narrow space), yellow sconces, deep reddish and earth-colored walls and cherry benches with colorful flat cushions running beneath the windows add up to an inviting interior. Not much decor is needed; the outdoors is just beyond the tables. The windows, street side, are filled with amusing sculptures.
Cafe Divan has graced the block of shops and restaurants running from R to T streets for about eight months. The premises once housed a frame shop, then a coffeehouse; its location just across the street from the "Social" Safeway means the kitchen has instant access to supplies when items run low.
Turkish cuisine resembles the cooking of other Levantine countries those that border the sea between Greece and Egypt. Beef, lamb and chicken are the principal meats; eggplants, tomatoes, onions and garlic figure in many of the dishes, as do yogurt and cucumbers. Spices are used sparingly sometimes too much so.
Guests are hardly seated when a basket of hot and wonderfully chewy house-made flat bread appears with a little dish of dipping oil. Go easy on this tempting, soul-satisfying bread; don't sate your appetite before you have begun to sample Cafe Divan's delicious starters.
In addition to the usual hummus, eggplant salad and shepherd's salad (feta, lettuce, tomatoes, olives, onions and cucumbers), appetizers include a number of unusual dishes. Mujver are something between zucchini fritters and beignets, delicious little piping-hot morsels of shredded zucchini held together with a little egg.
Small pieces of cold chicken in a subtle walnut sauce, cerkez tavuk or Circassian chicken, is another good starter, although the dish could stand a little more spice or at least a little lemon. Additional lemon and garlic also would enhance the creamy, albeit bland, hummus, which goes down smoothly on that wonderful bread.
Classic Turkish cigars (sigara borek) are tightly rolled flaky pastry four to an order filled with rich, creamy feta and bits of parsley and then deep-fried to a golden brown. Cafe Divan's version, though rich, is excellent.
Perhaps the best and most typically Turkish starter is lahmacun. It's a cross between a pizza and an open-faced crepe. A mixture of finely chopped lamb with vegetables and herbs is spread on the crisp, thin dough. Shredded lettuce and onions are added, and the lahmacun is folded and eaten with fingers. It's a popular dish at bus terminals and railroad stations all over Turkey, and it's quite satisfying.
Cafe Divan offers a mixed meze platter for one or two diners, which combines stuffed grape leaves, hummus, feta cheese, lentil kofte (red lentils, cracked wheat, spices, parsley and spring onions) and sigara borek.
Pide is a flat bread but also is the name for Turkish pizzas, made in the restaurant's wood-burning oven. These are topped with a variety of foods, such as spicy Turkish sausage (sucuk pide); shrimp with tomatoes, onion, mushrooms and cheese; chicken; ground beef; eggplant or spinach, garlic, red pepper and feta cheese.
A satisfying light meal can be made of a sample of appetizers and a shared pide, polished off with a pretty cup full of some fine Turkish coffee, which can be ordered in any degree of sweetness desired.
Main courses are served with a small house salad, a pleasant combination of greens, grated carrots and chopped red cabbage. The entrees consist of a variety of shish kebabs (lamb, either in chunks or ground, chicken or shrimp) and sautes of lamb, chicken or shrimp. A whole, half or quarter rotisserie chicken also is an option. All dishes are available to carry out.
The sauteed jumbo shrimp are cooked with green peppers, onions and tomatoes. The dish is bland and not very interesting. At a recent dinner, the shrimp tasted unpleasantly of iodine. In contrast, house-made ravioli (manti) filled with tiny meatballs of beef and herbs in a yogurt-garlic sauce with bits of tomato is a perfect, not-to-be-missed dish. It's similar to Afghanistan's aushak delicate and slightly tart.
The outstanding entree may well be the rotisserie lamb (coban kuzu cevirme). A whole marinated lamb is cooked in the rotisserie oven until well done and served in small, succulent pieces with a little sauce and a dish of garlic-scented yogurt on the side. The lamb is prepared on Thursdays, although it sometimes is available on other days.
Most of the main courses are served with Cafe Divan's fragrant, buttery rice the best we have had this side of Tehran.
Desserts include an adequate, if somewhat dry, baklava, rice pudding, creme caramel and a milk pudding topped with cinnamon, which tastes much like the blanc manges of childhood.
Cafe Divan at last has a liquor license and a limited wine list of primarily French wines. Not included on the list are the Turkish house red and white wines ($5.25 per glass and less than $20 for a full bottle). The red is dry, robust and a perfect accompaniment for Cafe Divan's cooking. Raki, a cousin of anise-based Greek ouzo and French pastis, which Turks drink with meals, is available as well.
Service is helpful, friendly and competent. Waiters go out of their way to explain the various dishes and to make recommendations. Over the next few weeks, the restaurant will start its prix fixe weekend buffet. There are no divans at Divan, just benches, but it's a good meeting place, relaxed and pleasant, with some very good food.


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