This adventure in dining begins like many others I’ve experienced over the years: in a nondescript strip mall.
Some of the best food can be found in strip malls of course, in establishments with harshly lit rooms and plastic chairs. So regardless of atmosphere, the anticipation of awesome Turkish food made me giddy. Turns out, I had totally prejudged the book by its cover.
The soft lighting and tasteful decor was downright elegant. Linen tablecloths were framed at the tables by beautifully upholstered chairs. Lovely Turkish art and woven rugs adorned the walls. Cozy was the adjective my brain finally settled upon.
Seductive aromas of sautéing garlic, onion, and spices greeted us. I tried to guess… was that oregano? Maybe cinnamon? Whatever magic they were conjuring back there had us all salivating.
Anatolia’s owner, Huseyin Ustunkaya has a warm and easy smile. The restaurant is packed, and he seems to know the majority of his customers by name. Since things were so busy, I told him we’d talk after the rush died a little. “It’s fine!” He says, “They don’t really need me out there!” I believe him, but I told him I wouldn’t feel right for taking up his time. Besides, we were all starving.
Fresh bread with herbed oil was brought, giving us time to look over the menu. I asked our server, Deniz, to pick some of his favorites for us to try.
His choices did not disappoint. We started with the Anatolia sampler platter: Stuffed grape leaves, rolled phyllo filled with salty cheese (these went over HUGE with my kids), and house made hummus with pita. Accompanying this beautiful spread was rose petal jam which I had never had before. Now I kinda want to bathe in it.
At the request of my kiddos we had calamari as well, which was perfect. Crispy, without the consistency of breaded rubber bands. They disappeared fast.
Next came the entrees…
He also recommended a Turkish wine I had never tried. It was a great table wine, dry and light on the tannins.
The lamb stew was amazing. Cubed lamb, carrots, potatoes, zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, green beans, bell peppers, garlic and onions all baked harmoniously in a stone oven. The gravy forged by this process was delicate, and it balanced the rich flavor of the lamb beautifully.
Up next was Turkish gyros, seasoned and marinated beef cooked on a rotating skewer and thinly sliced (as all proper gyros should be in my humble opinion). It was also served with rice pilaf, yogurt sauce and grilled vegetables.
Because my children are carnivores and love all things lamb, they also had the lamb shish kabob: lamb cubes marinated in Turkish spices chargrilled on skewers served with rice pilaf, yogurt sauce and grilled vegetables. Believe me when I tell you this dish was amazing!
Finally, also at the recommendation of Deniz, I had the vegetarian sampler. It was a magnificent dish of eggplant stuffed with onions, pine nuts, tomatoes and parsley; artichoke stuffed with pine nuts, rice, and currants; and grilled vegetables. It was served with rice and that ubiquitous yogurt sauce. I generally like vegetarian dishes, this one is now my favorite.
After stuffing ourselves like Christmas turkeys (no pun intended), I had the pleasure of sitting down for a while to speak with the man running this finely tuned show.
How it all started…
The Ustunkaya brothers, Huseyin and Harun, worked in a resort located in Antalya, an idyllic beachside town on Anatolia’s southwest mediterranean coast.
Owned by Marriot, the resort was an excellent place for the brothers to gain experience, and as Huseyin told me, learn English. He said learning English would be one of the most difficult, and most vital pieces of the process of immigrating to the US.
“My passion wasn’t with resorts, I knew that. I knew what I wanted above all else was to open my own restaurant, serving the food I grew up with and love so much.” He says.
The Ustunkaya brothers come from a family surrounded by food. His father ran restaurants when he was young so the boys had exposure to the business from early on. Later, his father started a family business distributing vegetables to commercial restaurants and resorts. Fun fact: most of his business came from selling purple carrots, which are especially in demand because of a popular drink brewed there called Salgam Suyu made from purple carrots, bulgur wheat, salt, and yeast. I asked him why it wasn’t on the menu. He laughed, “I’m not sure my non-Turkish customers are ready for that yet”.
Of course this made me really want to try it. Challenge accepted, Huseyin.
His mother was a strong influence in the kitchen. She taught Huseyin and Harun how to cook traditional recipes. He especially credits her with kindling the spark which led to his love for cooking.
But competition was harsh in Turkey for independent restauranteurs, and the bureaucracy involved was messy and inconsistent. They had friends here in the U.S who encouraged them to come follow their dream, so they took the leap and came to the U.S in 1998.
Coming to America
Relocating from the resort in Turkey to the Airport Marriott here in Nashville made for an easier transition, but the long term goal was to pave the path toward owning their own place.
Although he has travelled to pretty much every area of the country, he says he feels most at home in Nashville. His neighbors, work colleagues, and community are very supportive. “Nashville is a good place to be because it has a slower pace yet the influx of people moving from bigger cities makes it a melting pot.”
It helps a lot also that he has a nephew and niece who live in Santa Monica, both of whom also in the restaurant business. His brother and sister are here in Nashville. His wife eventually immigrated here as well after he got settled in. Apparently, she too is an amazing cook. “She’s a better cook than me!” Huseyin says, once again with a hearty laugh.
Sharing the culture
Huseyin has found that people are very interested in learning about his culture, and he loves to educate his customers about Turkey. Upon looking around the restaurant that night, I had noticed there were people of all ages, races, etc. He considers himself kind of a casual virtual tour guide, telling people what to see and where to go in Turkey. He gives advice if they’re worried about security, cultural differences, things like that. He especially loves to talk shop about the food.
Hopes for his family, and for others like them.
His face brightens when I ask him what his hopes for the future are here in America.
“I would love to see the little ones find their passion here.”
He says he feels fortunate to have been able to reach the goals he had set for himself, goals that have made him a successful businessman and a well liked member of the community. He’d like to see others have the same opportunity.
When I asked what advice he could give to any immigrated restauranteurs just starting out, he paused thoughtfully for a second.
“The secret to success for any restaurant is happy employees. “This is why we have very little turnover“ he says, “there’s ownership from everyone who works here. We all share the same passion for what we do.”
He also sites steadfastness as a contributing factor. “I stayed persistent when I was first starting out,” he says, “throughout the challenges of financing, all the way around to the everyday ways we try to make dining here a special experience for our customers. It’s not hard to stay persistent when working for something you love.”
Right on time, to punctuate the “special experience for our customers” concept, Deniz shows up to the table with dessert.
“It’s called Kunefe, it’s a special dessert, you won’t find it in too many places here.” He says.
I have never had anything like it. “Divine” may be an understatement. It’s super thin layers of rolled pastry, shredded and baked with unsalted cheese drizzled with light syrup.
It was a sweet way to cap off a wonderful, educational evening. If you’re in the Nashville area, try Huseyin’s place, you won’t regret it.
Anatolia Turkish Restaurant
48 White Bridge Road / Nashville, TN 37205
(615) 356-1556 ~or~ (615) 356-1551