The surprising thing about Zatis is how effectively the venerable Oakland hangout combines the traditional flavors of classic Turkish cuisine with a fresh, modern Bay Area sensibility. Last December, owner Zati Uysal replaced many of the Cal-Med dishes he'd been serving for years with specialties from his Turkish background, and the results have been impressive: The food is not only robust and satisfying, but there are layers of spice and texture that encourage the diner to experience the flavors of the Ottoman Empire with renewed understanding. Meats are juicy and tender, vegetables are fresh and sumptuous, and despite the venue's cool, contemporary setting, this is a comfortable, laidback place to relax and dine with a group of friends in the mood for something different.
Located along foodie-centric Piedmont Avenue, Zatis invites the hungry hither with its handsome brick edifice, gold-and-cobalt neon sign, and the fragrance of garlic, mint, and frying filo. Inside is a long, sleek dining room in white, beige, and steel blue with tables covered in starched napery. Colorful, culinary-themed modern art adorns the walls, and a glassed-in, blond-wood kitchen where a team of chefs chop, flame, and whisk is open to the dining area. Tall windows let in plenty of sunshine, and vertiginous potted plants dot the landscape. Toward the back, there's a cozy nook for small groups with a coffee bar, a variety of old-country objets d'art, and a portrait of the owner's mother, the inspiration for the house cuisine. (Her picture also is featured on the bottles of extra-virgin olive oil the restaurant crafts out of fruit imported from Turkey.)
Begin your meal, naturally, with a selection of mezeler (appetizers). The sigara börek were irresistible, cigar-shaped cylinders of hot, flaky filo stuffed with a sharp yet creamy filling of feta, smoked cheese, and parsley. Another filo-based starter, isplanaki börek, stuffed the crunchy, buttery pastry with earthy spinach, melted feta, and bits of tender potato. Mücver (zucchini cakes) were rich, oily, and intensely flavored with herbs, spices, parmesan, and shards of squash; chunks of perfectly sweet cantaloupe tossed with feta and fresh mint made for a refreshing palate-cleanser. Also delectable: finger-size filets of tender grilled calamari tossed with capers and red onion and served on a bed of peppery arugula.
Our single foray onto the non-Turkish side of the menu was a crepe stuffed with spinach, tomatoes, and four kinds of cheese — pretty good but nothing special. The imam bayildi, though, was special indeed. The name ("swooning imam") refers to an apocryphal holy man who fainted with pleasure at the mere fragrance of the dish, a casserole of eggplant stewed with onions, tomatoes, and just enough olive oil to make it rich and almost creamy. Zatis' rendition adds spinach and artichokes and is worthy of the legend: a spicy, hearty palate-pleaser. A traditional guvec (stew) of eggplant, mushrooms, tomatoes, peppers, and cubes of tender, slow-cooked, mildly gamy lamb was full-bodied and succulent with a nice peppery aftertaste. A dozen manti (traditional spiced-meat dumplings) were served in a creamy mint-tomato-yogurt sauce that turned its platter into a gooey, delicious mess. And the kitchen's version of sis kebab was one of the best we'd ever had: The cubes of lamb were tender and smoky, the kofte (ground-lamb sausage) was spicy and pungent, and the rice was a light, buttery foil for the meats.
The star dessert was a rich custard with the consistency of ice cream and the flavor and bite of Turkish coffee. (There was even a thin layer of the richly concentrated sludge at the bottom of the bowl, waiting to be scraped up like some jet-propelled carton of yogurt.) The rice pudding was its soothing obverse, a roomy wine glass of creamy texture scented with cinnamon, vanilla, and rosewater and topped with crunchy bits of hazelnut. Revani, a cake of farina and pine nuts draped with lemon syrup and pistachio-infused cream, was earthy and dense and a bit dry in texture, but there was nothing wrong with the house baklava. Rich, flaky, not too sweet, and packed with walnuts, it was served with a dollop of soft vanilla ice cream, like a yummy Turkish version of pie à la mode.
Several menu options are vegetarian-friendly. Kick off a meat-free meal with one of the house salads: mixed greens with walnuts, gorgonzola, and honey vinaigrette; oven-roasted beets with pine nuts, goat cheese, and the establishment's own mulberry vinegar dressing; and a traditional shepherd's salad with feta, olives, and cucumber. Other starters include the zucchini cakes, the feta-filled sigara börek, the spinach-stuffed ispanaki börek, and the fresh melon with mint and feta as well as grape leaves filled with rice, currants, and pine nuts and an appetizer platter of hummus and smoked eggplant with pita bread. Among the entrées are the four-cheese crepe and the imam bayildi plus mushroom and shallot ravioli with a gorgonzola cream sauce, and a whole-wheat pita pizza topped with olives, feta, artichokes, and tomato.
The brief wine list features two selections from Turkey's Kavaklidere vineyards: a scarlet-hued, watery Okuzgözü and a crisp, dry, Pinot-Grigio-esque Emir de Nevsehir. There are eighteen other wines, too, half of them local and all of them highly affordable. A dozen are available by the glass. Beers come and go (although you can usually count on a bottle of Sierra Nevada), but for a real charge there's the aforementioned Turkish coffee, an ounce or two of thick, syrupy, jet-black caffeine served grounds-and-all in a tiny cup with plenty of sugar — a marvelously spirited way to conclude a rich, satisfying, palate-awakening meal.