Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Nizam’s, a 28-year-old Turkish restaurant in Vienna, is the darling of many a restaurant reviewer. One local magazine has included Nizam’s on its 100 Very Best Restaurants list for the past 21 years.

Why this love fest? Because Nizam’s doner kebab is divine. The lamb is incredibly tender and well-seasoned. This is because it’s prepared the “right” way, according to John Ozgur, manager at the restaurant, which is named after his father, who still owns the business.

“It’s a lot of work, a lot of details,” Mr. Ozgur says. Those details include marinating a leg of lamb overnight and then stacking and roasting it on a vertical rotisserie and finally serving it fresh every day with pita bread, yogurt sauce, grilled green peppers and sauteed tomatoes. The marinade includes onion (which helps cut the gamey flavor, Mr. Ozgur says), black pepper, olive oil, heavy cream and salt.

“We used to just serve it a couple of days a week, but people would drive across the Beltway just to get it, and then they got the days mixed up, and they got mad,” he says. “So we decided — since 90 percent of our customers order it — just to serve it every day.”

All is not as divinely good as the doner kebab at Nizam’s, however. The evening we arrived, 15 minutes tardy for our 8:30 reservation, we were nearly turned away. The kitchen is closing, we were told. We argued and subsequently were seated.

The service warmed up to us as the evening progressed, and the food arrived promptly and our glasses never remained empty. However, we did suffer the occasional “it’s time for you to leave now” glare. We were the only guests that night but were told that on Fridays and Saturdays, the place is hopping.

The food is mostly very good. We started with the Sultan meze platter, which consists of seven small mezes. The stuffed grape leaves were the best by far, flavorful and succulent. The hummus and fried eggplant also were nicely prepared, but the feta and pita bread were dry. Then again, the kitchen was closing … .

The entree winner clearly was the doner kebab, but also very tasty was the Bursa kebab — marinated chicken breast grilled and layered with sauteed pita bread and yogurt sauce and topped with tomato sauce. The chicken was very tender and seasoned nicely.

The moussaka also was very good, with a perfect balance of eggplant, meat and sauce. The seasoning was on the weak side.

The portions at Nizam’s are not abundant, but certainly adequate, leaving plenty of room for dessert, of which there are nine varieties.

We tried the mixed dessert plate, which consists of baked pear, baklava, kazandibi and creme caramel. The pear was soggy and sour, but the creme caramel was firm and flavorful. The kazandibi (milk and rice pudding) also was tasty, but the baklava was a tad dry.

Nizam’s has a full bar with a respectable wine list and, despite our tiff in the beginning of the evening, we were treated to a glass of port to cap the meal — nice on a cold winter’s night.

The restaurant is decorated with ceramic plates and paintings of Turkish towns. It’s nice but feels dated. It’s clean but slightly cluttered. It certainly lacks sophistication but feels authentic. The elder Mr. Ozgor, who opened the restaurant in a small Vienna shopping center almost three decades ago, adds to the “authenticity,” dressed in his white waiter’s coat, so typical of old-timey restaurants in Turkey. He doesn’t serve; he oversees.

The best thing about Nizam’s definitely is the food, which is very good, if not great. Does it deserve all the press and praise it receives? On a good night, when the service clicks, we would say yes.

RESTAURANT: Nizam’s Restaurant, 523 Maple Ave. West, Vienna; 703/938-8948;

HOURS: 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday

PRICES: Starters, $3.25 to $7.95 (lunch), $3.25 to $8.95 (dinner); main courses, $7 to $17.95 (lunch), $14.95 to $21.95 (dinner); desserts, $3.50 to $5.50

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Parking lot

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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