Sumela Restaurant in High Point, North Carolina
A highly popular Turkish restaurant, Sumela Restaurant is very busy, especially at lunchtime. Tucked away in a strip mall the ambiance is cheerful and pleasing with plants and Turkish decor — copper pots displayed on shelves, beautiful Turkish ceramic plates and red carpet displayed on the walls. Turkish music plays in the background and the restaurant has plenty of natural daylight. Outdoor seating is a popular choice during warm weather but we sat indoors as it was a cold day.
I met with the owner, Mehmet Cakal to interview him about his background and how he came to open the restaurant.
Mehmet is soft-spoken, but I sense his strength. He hails from Trabzon, Turkey--a province located on the coast of the Black Sea and at the foothills of the Pontic Alps in the NE corner of Turkey. The area is famous for an ancient Greek monastery, Soumela.
This Greek Orthodox monastery was founded in 386 AD and is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The monastery was built on Mela Mountain within the Pontic Mountains range, in the Maçka district of Trabzon Province in modern Turkey. Soumela means "Black Mountain." The monastery sits on the narrow ledge of a steep cliff.
After immigrating to the USA from Trabzon, Turkey in 1989 Mehmet started a new life in Williamsburg, Virginia. Seven years later he moved to North Carolina. He opened a restaurant in High Point, NC in 1997 and named it Sumela Restaurant--after the Greek monastery. At the restaurant, there is a framed picture of the monastery hanging on the wall, in honor of the monastery.
Initially, Mehmet served grilled hamburgers. Over time people started asking for Turkish food. He realized there was a need and market, especially with the twice-yearly International Furniture Mart Event where designers and customers come from all over the world. Not only is his cuisine popular but locals, visitors, and employees adore him.
Mehmet describes Turkish cuisine as being diverse and includes a lot of vegetables in addition to lamb, beef and chicken. Friends and family members enjoy getting together often for meals. A large pot or platter of food is placed in the center so everyone can eat together. A popular Turkish food is Doner--or Gyro as it is known here. As Mehmet hails from the Black Sea area, seafood--especially fish--is a staple in that region.
The spices he uses commonly in Turkish cuisine include various kinds of dry chili peppers that may be roasted and added to grilled meat kebab marinades. Each chili pepper has a unique flavor. The spices are more flavorful when bought at the spice bazaars in Istanbul. Other spices include cumin, pepper, paprika, rosemary, and oregano. Unlike in middle eastern cuisine, he rarely uses saffron. Dessert may be baklava or rice pudding, both of which are very popular at the restaurant.
Growing up in Trabzon, Turkey as a child, Mehmet helped his father with the family-run business--a convenience store--in Turkey. His mother and sister taught him some basic cooking. Since then he has taught himself the finer aspects of Turkish and Mediterranean cuisine and even today Mehmet’s cooking continues to evolve as he aspires for perfection. Having eaten several times at the restaurant I can easily say he has a very refined style and his restaurant is always busy.
In the last 5 years, he overcame 2 major challenges: first, prolonged road construction that prevented easy access to his customers and his business suffered a serious setback; second, an accident where a car crashed into his restaurant destroying the prep area—the restaurant was shut down for 6 months.
Mehmet took me into his kitchen where he stirred a pot of rice pudding that was simmering on the stove. He also had a pot of boiling sugar syrup to pour over the baklava that was baking in the oven. His chef, Santos, has been working for him for the better part of 20 years.
Mehmet has 2 sons who help him run the restaurant. At home, on Sundays, Mehmet cooks fish for his wife and family. As his wife is allergic to spices, he avoids using them when he cooks her a meal.
I came back on a later date for dinner there with a friend. Everything we ordered was served within a few minutes. With guidance from Mehmet’s son about the different items on the extensive menu we decided to have a 3-course meal and it was a sumptuous experience eating authentic Turkish food!
For starters, the menu offered many choices such as Baba Ganoush, Spanakopita, Hummus, Tabbouleh, stuffed grape leaves, and Turkish meat pie. We ordered falafel. Having eaten falafel at many places I can honestly say these were the best—crunchy on the outside with an explosion of flavors inside. Falafel is a deep-fried vegetable patty made with chickpeas ground together with parsley, onions, garlic, and aromatic herbs. The cold yogurt sauce served with the falafel provided a refreshing contrast. In addition to Turkish food, the menu featured several Italian items so we also ordered mozzarella sticks for appetizers and these were also the best I’ve ever had.
There was a large variety of entrees ranging from Kofte (char-grilled meatballs made from fresh ground beef mixed with chopped onions, parsley, garlic, and spices) beef, lamb and chicken kebabs, salads, wraps, subs and Italian food.
We chose the Tavuk Shish Kebab—chicken kebabs on a skewer and they were delicious! Chargrilled after being marinated in spices overnight they were perfectly seasoned, tender and moist. Served with a yogurt sauce, mildly flavored rice and “Pyaz” ( a fresh salad with cannellini beans, onions, tomatoes, and parsley) they made for a thoughtfully balanced combination.
Wanting to try the Mediterranean entrees we also ordered lemon chicken with a tangy sauce, capers and mushrooms served with steamed vegetables, fresh pita bread, and the best French fries I’ve had.
Dessert was a golden brown homemade pistachio baklava - Mehmet showed me how they were baked in the oven while he stirred a pot of sugar syrup on the stove. Biting into the baklava I could taste the crisp flaky layers with the sweet sugar syrup adding delicious juiciness to the lower layers. Crushed pistachios were sprinkled on the golden brown top and also in between the layers.
We were full but it was hard to resist the homemade creamy rice pudding flavored gently with rose water, cinnamon and vanilla. The bill with tip was about $50 for the 2 of us, Mehmet has elevated every dish served at the restaurant... A great experience will definitely go again!
My Interviews with restaurant owner.
About the Author:
Hi, I’m a high school senior. I enjoy traveling all over the world. I’m also interested in exploring international cultural diversity in my community. I interview local immigrants and refugees and share their stories on a Facebook page.
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