Yes, it's open. Finally. The Sydney outpost of the Ottoman empire has been a few years and many dollars coming. As a fan of the Canberra original - and as someone who would like to see the vacuum at the fine-dining end of Sydney's Middle Eastern food scene filled - I've been pretty excited about its impending opening. I've also been a little bit afraid for the owners, chef Serif Kaya among them, not least of all when I learned they weren't so much dipping their toes in and testing the waters with their first Sin City venture as leaping in the deep end, committing to a whopping 200-seat room on one of the newly-restored wharfs at Walsh Bay. Sydney is not what you'd call a forgiving restaurant city.
Kaya has been doing Turkish food in Australia longer than most of us have known how to pronounce 'pide' properly. He ran a string of Turkish eateries around Canberra before gaining acclaim in the early 90s for his modern take on the canon he presented at Ottoman, first in Manuka before moving to larger premises in Barton, amid the hulking Commonwealth zaibatsus on the fringe of the Parliamentary triangle. Whichever its incarnation, the restaurant has long been known, quite rightly, as being among the best dining the nation's capital has ever seen. Canberra, mind, is a small pond.
Kaya's food, when it's good, is very good. Hold on to that thought for a moment, and to the idea that Ottoman is a restaurant I think you might like, because there are a few things that don't work in the restaurant's favour. The floor is all over the place. Chalk up all the justifications you can on the restaurant's behalf - it's a big restaurant, they're only new, it's very hard to find experienced floor staff at the moment - but I found service, on my visits, disappointing to say the least. Plates sat for many minutes after each course. We had food from a new course silver-served onto the used, cutlery-topped plates from a previous course. The wine list had points of interest, but wines by the glass weren't poured at the table, and my glasses were whisked away unasked and sometimes still bearing a little wine.
It is, however, improving over time. First visit, we ordered a series of small dishes only to have the waiter bring us five forks and five knives each all at once. This doesn't happen any more, but it flags another issue: the menu structure. I think it's too long. Divided into hot and cold entrées and mains, and bearing a full page of specials, it's not abundantly apparent how you should order. Perhaps a shared dishes approach would make more sense.
The menu is littered with not particularly Turkish fare, such as the eye fillet with mash or the sashimi-style fish, which seem superfluous when you consider that almost no one does high-end Turkish food in Australia, bar the very sharp Ish Tosun at Perth's Eminem (who, incidentally, worked for Kaya briefly back in the day). There's certainly a niche there. It'd be great to see Ottoman ditch the Mod Oz stuff and wow us instead with gems from the Turkish canon. Here's how you can get the best out of what they're doing in the meantime.
Pretty much anything with lamb or eggplant is going to be done faithfully. The cutlets are good and the kofte, billed as skinless lamb sausages, are excellent, though I'd like to see a coarser texture to the meat. If you like lamb's liver, this version will make you very happy. I don't know if they mean to fry the strips a bit past the preferred pink, but even so, its side salad of raw red onion and sumac give it a real lift.
Char-grilled thin slices of veal with Aleppo pepper are lost, essentially, to their unsubtle lemon mustard sauce, but the shish tavuk, that classic chargrilled skewered chicken with paprika, is wonderfully flavoursome, and the creamy texture of the chickpeas in the accompanying salad is superb.
A side of choban, the Turkish shepherd's salad of peeled tomatoes, cuke, red onion and parsley, is quietly lovely.
Seafood is not something you see a lot of at Sydney's Turkish restaurants. It's one of Ottoman's strengths.
Bypass the mouth-puckering lemon cured kingfish for simple, elegant pan-fried fillets of whiting on a dill-accented baby fennel salad. The unlikely sounding battered seafood dolma - a mix of salmon, lobster and prawn wrapped in vine leaves and lightly deep-fried - has been a signature for years. I've always given it a miss but was pleasantly surprised by its richness and texture.
Desserts are definitely interesting. Turkey has a great tradition of ice-cream, and you'll see flavours like pomegranate on the menu. The baklava is good, and certainly superior, but as a dessert in a fine-dining context, this version doesn't cut it, and might work better as petits fours. My vote goes to the kazandibi - a really lovely baked custard with a savoury, piquant edge introduced by the incorporation of mastic extract, and a topping of sour cherries and raspberries.
I haven't told you much about the room. It's perfectly nice, big, open and glassed on three sides, sitting on Wharf Two just by the bridge. It's on the bright side, and a bit hot for my liking, but the ethnic Ottoman touches are quiet and the acoustics, thanks to high ceilings, plush carpets and cushy chairs, are good.
At the risk of sounding like just about every school report card I've ever received, there's plenty of potential here, but it's lacking in focus. Indeed, beyond the deficient service side of things, the foundations of a good restaurant are here. Focus, I suppose, is everything. We celebrate chefs for what they can put on menu and plate, but there may be more art still in what they leave out.