Restaurant Deconstructed: May/June 2015
The meze cart offers hummus, pickled vegetables, stuffed mussels and more

Mare Nostrum—in Latin “Our Sea”—is a modest restaurant in Fells Point with large ambitions. Co-owner Murat Mercan came to the U.S. from Istanbul to study finance at McNeese State in Louisiana, but missed his native Turkish food. After receiving his MBA, he landed an accounting job at Maryland Stone Source in Landover and brought home-cooked food to work each day. His boss, Merter Akbay, who is also Turkish, was impressed with Mercan’s culinary skills and suggested they open a restaurant together. Mercan is also co-owner of Toss Pizza on York Road, but that’s a whole other story.

Murat Mercan, who grew up in Istanbul, brings the food from his childhood to Mare Nostrum in Fells Point.

Sourcing. What makes Turkish food special, says Mercan, are the ingredients— particularly the seasonings. It’s hard to find red Maras pepper flakes, for example, or Isot pepper, made by drying red peppers in the sun each day and rolling them up in cloth to “sweat” when the sun goes down. The process takes about three weeks. Turkish pistachios are smaller, greener and tastier than those found in California; Mercan uses only Italian eggplant for the Saksuka (a meze made with roasted eggplant, tomatoes and peppers), and has the bronzini flown from the Aegean Sea. He travels to New Jersey for manti—miniature meat-filled ravioli, served with yogurt sauce. “We tried making it here, but couldn’t get the original taste,” he says. He met a couple at a market in New Jersey. “They are in their 60s or 70s and make manti at home. I bought 10 pounds to try.” Now he drives up there every couple weeks to buy the stuff, frozen, 50 pounds at a time. Another tricky ingredient was the lamb tail fat, an essential ingredient in adana (lamb) kebabs. Lambs in the U.S. don’t have plump tails like the Karakul breed found in Turkey. “I was searching for over a year, but I found it,” says Mercan, who won’t say where.

Co-owner Merter Akbay’s company, Maryland Stone Source

Kitchen. The main cooking surface in the kitchen is a bed of hot coals, where sis—or skewers—of varying widths rest on crossbars to cradle chicken and lamb above the heat. There’s an art to chopping the meat with a saber-like blade to achieve the right consistency, to molding it on the sis so it doesn’t fall into the fire, to keeping it from charring when the dripping fat makes the flames leap. Kunefe, a dessert made with shredded wheat, pistachio and mild sweet cheese, is cooked in a small aluminum pan above the coals. Chef Ömer Ademoglu hails from Urfa in southeast Turkey, where he learned to cook from his father.

Turkish coffee with honey-laced kunefe

Decor. Co-owner Akbay, owner of Maryland Stone Source, is responsible for the white Carrera marble tables, porcelain tile floors and bathrooms, clad in the same marble as the tabletops, equipped with elegant blue glass sinks. A Turkish friend provided the oil paintings, one of Bodrum Castle, built in the 15th century on the Turkish coast by the Knights of St. John, the other of the exterior of the Fells Point restaurant—which used to be a Quiznos, by the way.

Meze. Cold meze—a vast selection of small plates including kofte, hummus, pickled vegetables, chopped salads, stuffed mussels and strained yogurt—are wheeled around on a cart. In Turkish taverns, Mercan tells me, waiters carry around trays of meze for customers to select. Is there a name for this—like dim sum? “There’s no name for it; it’s just the way it is,” he says.

716 S. Broadway

Read more food news here.

Update: The print version and an earlier version of this story mistakenly identified Chef Omer’s home country. It has been corrected online.


Philadelphia Freedom

I love Philadelphia. So much so, in fact, that this year I packed up and moved to the City of Brotherly Love on a cold snowy day in February. Nothing against Baltimore, mind you, but a girl—especially a restless girl like me—needs a change every now and then.

And so, in homage to my newly adopted city, I present to you homemade versions of four iconic Philly foods.

Before you accuse me of being reductionist, I am well aware that Philadelphia has a sophisticated culinary landscape, and in no way is only about cheesesteak.

But still. How could I resist? I’ve eaten my weight in them over the past couple of months, after all, and in the process I’ve made an important discovery. They’re really, really good with Cheez Whiz (or, as the longtimers say, “whiz wit.”) Trust me on this one. In general I am an admitted cheese snob, and have always turned up my nose at the stuff, but there’s something about the way it melts into the steak that turns it into something far superior to the icky fake cheese product it usually is. I’ve made my cheese steak my favorite way, with onions and long hots, also known as Italian frying peppers.

No roundup of Philly grub would be complete without a soft pretzel. They’re super easy to make, and nothing beats chowing down on a steaming hot carb fresh from the oven. The tomato pie is another local specialty—and I’m lucky enough to live around the corner from a South Philly bakery that makes one of the best in the city. It’s not a deep-dish pie, nor a thin crust. I used focaccia dough to re-create its unique character—a rectangle of soft dough with a slightly crispy crust, topped with a piquant tomato sauce and, when cheese is used at all, dusted with Romano. It’s typically eaten cold or at room temperature.

Finally, everybody knows that Philly is the home of the hoagie. But not everyone knows that it’s also home to a sizable Vietnamese population, and there’s great authentic Vietnamese food to be found here. So I made a vegetarian banh mi—essentially a Vietnamese hoagie—for my last salute to the iconic foods of a delicious city.

Philly Cheesesteak with Whiz & Long Hots
makes 2 cheese steaks

10 ounces Cheez Whiz
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
½ small white onion, sliced
2 long hot peppers, chopped
12 ounces rib-eye, sliced paper thin (have the butcher cut it thinly or put it in the freezer for 10 minutes before cutting to make it easier to slice)
Salt and pepper, to taste
      2 8-inch hoagie rolls

Melt the Cheez Whiz in a saucepan over low heat and keep warm. Meanwhile, heat the oil over medium high heat on a griddle or deep-sided skillet. Fry the onions and peppers until soft. Remove and set aside. Add the steak, and salt and pepper generously. Cook until brown, stirring and chopping with a spatula. Add the peppers and onions back to the pan. Coat both sides of the hoagie rolls with Cheez Whiz, and fill each roll generously with half of the steak/pepper/ onion mixture. Spoon or ladle the remaining whiz over each hoagie and serve hot.

Philadelphia Tomato Pie
Serves 6-8

For the sauce (can be made a day ahead):
2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 large shallot, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
32 ounces canned whole tomatoes
1 tablespoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon sugar
Salt and pepper, to taste

In a large saucepan, saute the shallots in the olive oil over medium heat until soft. Add the garlic and cook an additional 2 minutes. Add the tomato paste and stir to coat the shallots and garlic. Add the rest of the ingredients, breaking up the whole tomatoes with a spoon (or your fingers). Simmer for 10 minutes. Using an immersion blender, puree the sauce until smooth. Simmer, uncovered, for 45 minutes until thickened. Taste for seasoning and allow to cool. May be refrigerated overnight.

For the dough:
4 cups all-purpose flour
1½ teaspoons salt
1 packet Rapid Rise yeast
1½ cups warm water

Sift together the flour, salt and yeast in a large bowl. Slowly add the water and stir with a wooden spoon—the dough will be shaggy. Knead by hand for 5 minutes. Place in a lightly oiled bowl, cover, and let rise until doubled, about 1 hour. Turn the dough out onto a lightly oiled cookie sheet and gently spread to the edges. Make a raised crust around the edges using the flat of your hand. Cover with plastic and allow to rise for an additional 30 minutes. To assemble the tomato pie, generously spread the sauce over the dough, leaving ¼ inch around the edge. Bake at 450 F for 20 minutes, or until the crust is a light golden brown. Dust with grated Romano cheese, cut into equal pieces, and eat hot or at room temperature.

Vegetarian Banh Mi
makes 2 banh mi

2 12-inch hoagie rolls, lightly toasted
Soy sauce
1 teaspoon plum sauce
½ cucumber, peeled, seeded and cut into (available at Asian markets)
2 small handfuls of pickled daikon and carrot (available at Asian markets)
1 jalapeno, cut into thin rings
Handful of fresh cilantro sprigs

For the strips:
1 4-ounce block fried tofu,
split lengthwise and then
cut into 10 pieces

Generously smear mayonnaise on each side of the hoagie rolls. Drizzle with soy sauce and ¼ teaspoon plum sauce per side. Carefully arrange, in order, the tofu, cucumber, pickled daikon and carrot, jalapeno and cilantro. Eat while the toasted hoagie rolls are still warm.

Homemade Soft Pretzels
makes 8 pretzels

1½ cups warm water
1 tablespoon sugar
1 packet active dry yeast
4½ cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons salt
10 cups water
⅔ cup baking soda
1 egg yolk plus 1 tablespoon water
Coarse sea salt

In a small bowl, combine the warm water and sugar. Add the yeast and let sit until it foams, about 5 minutes. Sift together the table salt and flour, and add this to the bowl of a stand mixer that has been fitted with the dough hook attachment. Slowly add the water/sugar/yeast mixture, along with the butter, while mixing on low speed. Increase the speed to medium and mix until the dough is smooth and pulls away from the sides. If it’s too dry add some water; if it’s too wet, add more flour. Place the dough ball in an oiled container and cover with plastic wrap. Leave in a warm place until the dough doubles in size (about an hour).

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F and line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. In a small bowl, whisk the egg yolk with a tablespoon of water and set aside. Bring the 10 cups of water, along with the baking soda, to a boil in a roasting pan or deep-sided skillet.

Meanwhile, divide the dough into 8 equal sections. On a lightly oiled surface, roll 1 section into a rope, approximately 2 feet long. Pull the ends up into a “u” and then bring them back down to make a pretzel shape. One at a time, place each pretzel into the boiling water for 30 seconds. Remove to the baking sheet, brush with the egg wash and top with a generous sprinkle of coarse sea salt. When you’ve finished this process with all 8 pretzels, bake for 8-12 minutes, until golden brown. Remove to a rack to cool—but eat while still warm!

Drink Me: May/June 2015

Whether you love to hate him or hate to love him, Don Draper has been firmly planted in our pop culture psyche for the better part of a decade. As the phenomenon that is “Mad Men” draws to a close, I offer a toast. Cheers to the man who reaffirmed there’s nothing more handsome than a gentleman in a well-tailored suit drinking an Old Fashioned. Here’s my version.

2 oz Hudson Baby Bourbon Whiskey
2 dashes aromatic bitters
1 cherry
1 orange slice
1 lemon wedge
1 sugar cube

In a rocks glass dissolve sugar cube with bitters and a bit of water. Fill glass with ice. Add cherry, orange slice and lemon wedge. Pour in bourbon and stir gently before serving.

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