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Photo by Yusuka Oba, courtesy of Izgara

Dish By DishSydney

How Izgara in Potts Point Channels Istanbul’s Legendary Grills, in Five Dishes

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Izgara in Potts Point is named after the Turkish word for ‘grill’. And while smoke and char deeply mark its menu, there’s nothing hazy about the inspiration behind this new venue. Here, co-owner Efe Topuzlu draws on his (occasionally sooty) memories of working at his uncle’s ocakbaşi in Istanbul nearly two decades ago.

Ocakbaşi is a concept where you sit along a grill,” he explains. “The grill is usually the centre of the venue.”

The chef remembers how the smoke would linger in his hair, as he worked over coals at his uncle’s joint in Taksim Square.

“You’re in front of the charcoal, your hands get black, especially your fingers, your nails,” he says. “At the beginning, it was really hard and I really hated it because I’m a guy who looks after himself.” But eventually, the livewire joy and momentum of working in an ocakbaşi got to him. He learnt around 50 dishes from working the fire – mezes, dips, and meats he’d char directly in front of diners. The air constantly smelled of sizzling garlic, onions and skewers.

The chef also remembers being on the other side of the grill, drinking raki for the first time with his father and friend as diners at an ocakbaşi. “Raki is the aniseed Turkish national drink, similar to Greek ouzo or arak from Lebanese culture,” he says. “When you drink it, you don’t feel anything, but after two or three, you’re in another world.”

“If it’s your first time, you say, ‘what a nice drink’, after three shots, you’re gone,” he laughs.

Izgara is built from all these ocakbaşi memories, and the worry-erasing magic of being in one. “You forget about everything else in the world,” he says.

For him and business partner Ozgur Sefkatli, Izgara has been in the works for a long time (“This ‘coming soon’ sign has been there for a year, maybe”), but translating this long Turkish tradition has been worth the delays: diners are intensely curious about the grilled meats that the chefs cook, slice and plate in front of them.

“People are asking us questions we don’t expect,” he says.

They might want to know more about the menu, too. Here are five dishes that make Izgara stand out.

For the restaurant’s İskender, chef Efe Topuzlu favours thinly sliced lamb backstrap. Photo by Yusuke Oba, courtesy of Izgara
For the restaurant’s İskender, chef Efe Topuzlu favours thinly sliced lamb backstrap. Photo by Yusuke Oba, courtesy of Izgara

İskender

İskender has been around since the 1800s,” says the chef. This kebab dish is named after its creator, İskender Efendi, and originates from Bursa, where co-owner Sefkatli is from.

“This is something from his childhood memories,” says Topuzlu, “but you can find it everywhere in Turkey.”

Traditional İskender kebabs are served on bread and flavoured with tomato sauce, brown butter and yoghurt. Izgara levels up this dish in many inspired ways.

“We use a lamb backstrap, thinly slice it, make it look like a doner kebab actually,” says the chef. It’s placed on ‘pide bits’ – cubed croutons formed from Malika Bakehouse Turkish bread lavished with frothy butter – and layered with special sauce and sizzling hot garlic for extra flavour. There’s the requisite tomato sauce and yoghurt, too, and the chef recommends diners combine everything (“a bit of the sauce, a bit of the meat, a bit of the yoghurt”) on their forks.

For Topuzlu, eating İskender at a good kebab shop was a big deal in his homeland. “As a child, it’s one of the top five dishes I had,” he says.

Köpoğlu

Topuzlu says this smoky eggplant dip is from Trakya, in the north-west of Turkey. “This one I learnt from my uncle,” he says. To make it, you char eggplant, capsicum and tomatoes over an open fire – a method Topuzlu learnt about in a painfully roundabout way.

“My uncle was going to teach me, and he was gathering other ingredients,” the chef says. “He said, ‘can you grab those eggplants and bring them to me?’ And I didn’t realise they were cooked over heat, because they were just sitting on the bench. So, I grabbed them with my two hands and I burned the hell out of my hands!” Topuzlu laughs at the memory now.

The smoky ingredients are peeled and flavoured with pepper paste, Turkish isot powder, and Maraş chilli, as well as glugs of olive oil and sprinkles of salt, pepper and cumin. They’re blended with garlicky labne, and topped with nigella seeds and chilli oil. The finished köpoğlu is served with slices of pide from Malika Bakehouse in Botany, Izgara’s sibling venue.

For Topuzlu, it’s especially meaningful to see one of the first meze dishes he learnt on so many tables at Izgara. “I loved it so much, for so many years, and I wanted to have it on the menu,” he says. “It’s there now.”

Gavurdağı is a salad served at kebab houses across Istanbul. Photo courtesy of Izgara
Efe Topuzlu, Izgara’s co-founder. Photo by Katje Ford, courtesy of Izgara

Gavurdağı

“Gavurdağı is a bit underestimated, I believe,” says Topuzlu. “We serve it as a side salad, but it’s so tasty that I normally have it as a bowl, just for myself, at the end of the shift.”

It’s something he remembers eating at kebab houses across Istanbul. And compared to default leaf salads, lazily splashed with olive oil and vinegar, Gavurdağı is a total category-busting overachiever. It’s loaded with walnuts, sliced olives, tomato, mint, and spiced with sumac, Maraş chillies, and is zingy and sweet from sherry vinegar and pomegranate molasses.

“There’s a lot of flavour exploding in your mouth,” he says. The salad is named after a mountain in Turkey, in Gaziantep. He calls it “the capital of gastronomy in Turkey, probably around the world,” he says. “Most kebab, baklava, desserts are coming from there. So, I believe I have to go to Gaziantep, it’s on my bucket list.”

Izgara’s lahmacun packs pomegranate molasses for extra sweetness, as well as spice from pepper paste and sumac. Photo by Kitti Gould, courtesy of Izgara
Izgara’s lahmacun packs pomegranate molasses for extra sweetness, as well as spice from pepper paste and sumac. Photo by Kitti Gould, courtesy of Izgara

Lahmacun

You’ll find lahmacun on every corner in Istanbul, says Topuzlu. “It’s an all-time classic.”

“It’s a very thin pizza, they mostly call it Turkish pizza,” he adds. It’s cheeseless, though, and the flatbread base is typically layered with minced meat.

“Normally they use beef in Turkey. We use it mixed with the lamb together, so it has extra juiciness,” he says. Izgara’s version also has pomegranate molasses for extra sweetness, as well as spicy punch from pepper paste and sumac.

Lahmacun can be quite large – and at his uncle’s ocakbaşi, they’d zap it down into smaller, single-person portions. “Here, we serve the full version,” he says. It’s cut in four, for sharing. “The idea at Izgara and in Turkish culture, is sharing. You share your memories, your food, your drinks with your loved ones.”

Unlike İskender kebabs, lahmacun were very much an everyday comfort food for him in Istanbul. Adding a squeeze of lemon, a fresh hit of parsley or mint, or a blend of sumac and onion was always a good move.

Topuzlu would usually roll the flatbread like a carpet and eat it like a wrap. “I would just smash it in just a couple of minutes, it wouldn’t take that long.”

Does anyone at Izgara follow his lead?

“We recommend [this method], but people mostly eat it with a knife and fork. I don’t want to be judgey,” he laughs.

Izgara’s Lokum is cut from lamb tenderloin, grilled and served with smoked eggplant. Photo courtesy of Izgara
Izgara’s Lokum is cut from lamb tenderloin, grilled and served with smoked eggplant. Photo courtesy of Izgara

Lokum

Named after the word for Turkish delight, this dish is actually made from the lamb tenderloin sliced in the shape of the confectionery. Each side is grilled for a few quick minutes – so it’s still soft, like the rosewater squares it’s named after. Then the lokum is richly flavoured with garlic butter and served with smoked eggplant. “It’s not a copy and paste product from other Turkish restaurants,” says the chef. “It’s very unique.”

“When you think about Turkish food in Sydney, it’s mostly regarded as late-night kebabs, colourful dips. I believe it’s a part of it, but when you go to a restaurant in Turkey, you don’t get five different-coloured dips – you’ll never see that,” he says.

Topuzlu recognises the groundbreaking work of Somer Sivrioğlu (who opened Efendy in 2007) in teaching Sydney that Turkish cuisine goes far beyond kebab shops. “As newcomers, we’re younger than him and we believe we’re the next generation,” says Topuzlu. With partner Sefkatli, he’s opened three Turkish eateries in three years – Above Par, Malika Bakehouse and Izgara – which all represent a different side of the cuisine and build on Sivrioğlu’s achievements with his Efendy, Anason and Maydanoz restaurants.

“We want to take this flag off him and want to present for the next 10, 20 years where Turkish food can go.”


Lee Tran Lam is a writer, podcaster, and editor of New Voices on Food, a Diversity In Food Media anthology showcasing under-represented Australian talent. Her work has been published in The Guardian, Rolling Stone, Gourmet Traveller, and SBS Food. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Follow Resy, too.