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