Foot traffic on the cobblestone streets of Raleigh's City Market has ebbed and flowed since 1914, when farmers and housewives first gathered there to haggle over fresh fish and baked goods.
The 2004 fire that gutted former anchor tenant Greenshields Brewery & Pub left the renovated historic district struggling to find fresh footing. In recent years, Glenwood South, the Warehouse District and Fayetteville Street have lured crowds west, leaving the old market's weathered brick walls and Spanish tile roofs a few blocks east of hip.
A handful of stubborn, well-loved institutions—Big Ed's, Woody's and Vic's Italian Restaurant, and a couple of recent additions, Zydeco and Benelux Café—keep the dining scene alive in this Moore Square landmark. In late June, restaurateur Arif Denk added Troy Mezze Lounge to the mix.
Rubbed coral walls, dangling, jewel-like pendant lights and a cozy banquette nook help erase the memory of the space's ambitious but doomed predecessors and set a mood reminiscent of a Middle Eastern bazaar. Since it's open at lunch, dinner and late night, the eatery seeks to be a lot of things to a lot of people, and Denk delivers, for the most part, with food and diversions.
The dinner menu is varied, with plenty of offerings for carnivores and vegetarians. Denk and head cook Sahin Ibis, formerly of Talulla's in Chapel Hill, grind the lamb for kebabs ($15) in-house, adding cumin and garlic with a deft touch. Lamb ($16) and beef ($15) skewers are perfectly pink inside, nicely charred on the outside. If you go to Troy Mezze looking for Mediterranean-style lamb chops or beef and chicken kebabs, you won't be disappointed. Don't be shy about asking for extra tzatziki, though. Our platter's small serving of the cucumber sauce failed to match the generous portions of meat.
When I dined in on a recent, busy First Friday, I was happily surprised to find the vegetables outshining all else. The offerings for plant lovers are plentiful, from roasted eggplant tapas ($7) and a simple shepherd salad (tomatoes, cucumber, red onions and herbs in lemon vinaigrette, $7) to haydari (homemade yogurt cheese with walnuts, olive oil, mint and garlic, $7) and the kök salad ($8), a memorable mélange of root vegetables. The kitchen dresses perfectly al dente cubes of beets, celery root, sweet potatoes and carrots in a pomegranate vinaigrette and tosses it all with toasted walnuts and dots of goat cheese. The result is a lively orchestration of fresh and earthy flavors, creamy and crunchy textures.
The tapas menu tempts with Turkish dumplings (meat, $8/ veggie, $7) and fritters of zucchini and cheese ($7). Unfortunately, we went with the sautéed calamari ($8), which was bereft of both flavor and the promised preserved lemon.
We fared much better on a second visit when we ordered a pair of pideler, Turkish pizzas. The crust is a house-made, sesame-sprinkled base that exists in that lovely limbo between a too-crisp cracker and a too-chewy French bread. Topped with Turkish pastrami ($9), it marries the salty-sweet and almost caramel notes of the meat with gooey cheese. The artichoke and sun-dried tomato ($9) incarnation is fresh and flavorful with its basil, feta and kasari, an aged Turkish cheese.
Troy Mezze is Denk's first stateside restaurant venture. He ran several eateries in his home of Troy City, Turkey, before he decamped for Chapel Hill in 1998. He now lives in Morrisville. Denk says his new place is a bit fancier than his last operation in Turkey, but he has his sights firmly set on offering the most authentic Turkish dining experience in the Triangle. Meats, spices and dry goods come from a New York-based Turkish importer. Bread, desserts and sauces are made in-house.
The dimly lit space has room for five or six dozen diners, and during meal times, the low lights and sunlight filtering through plate glass give it a cozy Casbah feel. After the kitchen closes, the lounge vibe kicks in, with DJs or Brazilian jazz (on Tuesdays) and a bar crowd ruling the scene. On Thursday, the revelry kicks off early with belly dancing at 7 p.m.
Denk characterizes business as slow but steady, which is to be expected of a place that opened in the middle of summer on a quiet stretch of cobblestone in downtown Raleigh. Let's hope cooler weather moves the crowds to walk a few blocks east and give a new place in the old market a try.