This bright and casual restaurant, which opened last spring on East 45th Street, offers an artful array of authentic and impeccably prepared Turkish dishes at pretty reasonable prices.
Just don’t ask for a glass of water!
When I did so after ordering a lovely lunch of moussaka and a side salad of red beans and potatoes, the manager simply refused my request. At Bi Lokma, she said, I had the choice of bottled water, a small glass of lemonade or nothing. I chose nothing and marveled out loud that any restaurant would stick to such an unfriendly policy.
Imagine my surprise when the owner, a veteran crusty New York restaurateur named Orhan Yegen, showed up 20 minutes later, just as I was finishing my meal, to deliver a lengthy speech to the entire restaurant – true, it’s tiny – on the audacity of a customer who would dare to question Yegen’s judgments.
He once had a complaint box, he said, but had done away with it because he was tired of listening to customers’ criticisms.
While he, an educated man who was proud to be born in Turkey, provides his customers with china, flatware and a chair and table, “ignorant” Americans get just paper wrappings on the “dog food” they eat at McDonalds, he went on.
Certain at that point that he was speaking to me rather than to the house at large, I asked him if he meant customers were “ignorant” to ask for a glass of water.
“You are not a customer,” he said, finally looking me right in the eye. “Please be careful on your way out.”
I guess I was lucky to have polished off my lunch by then, and he was lucky that I had already paid my bill – required when you place your order. The moussaka, beans and potatoes and a Turkish coffee came to just under $17.
But the unpleasant incident was really a pity because Bi Lokma offers some very good Turkish cooking; better, in my opinion, than much of what you get in Turkey itself. I would have enjoyed a return visit, even without the tap water!
Yegenhttp://www.orhanyegen.com/, who is also the chef and owner of the older and larger Sip Sak on Second Avenue between 49th and 50th, is famous for dissing his customers, a strange policy for a chef who has burned through a long string of Manhattan restaurants. But in Bi Lokma, he has created a gem a short walk from the United Nations.
The place seats only 18 people at seven unadorned tables. Its strong point is lunch, but there is a smaller menu at dinner, and you can also do carry-out. No alcohol is served.
At the rear stands the stern manager, who informs you that the restaurant does not provide table service at lunchtime but instead is “self-service.” This is how it works: Cold dishes and desserts are displayed in a refrigerated deli cabinet and hot dishes keep warm in big pots on a glassed-in steam table.
You look over the offerings, check out the prices on a blackboard above the kitchen – there is no printed menu – and tell her what you want. The staff dishes out your food, hands you a plate and you pay for it before taking your dishes to a table, along with silverware, napkins and slices of puffy Turkish bread.
The cold dishes, which on a recent visit included slow-simmered leeks, a celery root salad, sautéed spinach, hummus, stuffed grape leaves, Cacik (thick yogurt with garlic) and an artichoke salad, are like eye candy and range from about $4 to $7 each.
A few hot soups ($4) are also available daily, as well as meal-sized Turkish ($9.50) and Greek ($10.50) salads.
The main hot dishes, equally photogenic and generally priced at $8.50 to $9.50, included lamb with beans or spinach, a tender-stewed chicken with vegetables, grilled meatballs, a vegetable casserole, cabbage stuffed with ground lamb and kebabs, not to mention the savory moussaka.
Desserts like baklava, almond pudding and butternut squash are about $4. A well-executed Turkish coffee is available unsweetened, semisweet or sweet for $3.
Bi Lokma is located at 212 E. 45th St., between Second and Third Avenues, and is open Monday through Saturday, noon to 11 p.m. It does not take reservations, but the phone number is (212) 687-3842.
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Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.