Before you relegate Efes Turkish Cuisine to the realm of restaurant irrelevance for its Sanford locale, consider this: No other Turkish restaurant in the greater Orlando area offers a more Ottoman backdrop than this one. 'It felt like I was in Istanbul, Turkey,â?� says owner Nejla Ozturk of her first sight of the lakeside setting. It's one of the more picturesque spots in Central Florida, though I wonder why they named the restaurant 'Efes,â?� the Turkish name for the ancient city of Ephesus, rather than 'Istanbul,â?� 'Constantinopleâ?� or 'Byzantium.â?� In any case, its place along the shores of expansive Lake Monroe gives it an enchanting Mediterranean feel, but as Efes' predecessors Limoncello and Oscar's eventually found out, waterfront dining can only carry a restaurant so far. A stellar kitchen can accentuate a stellar view, but with a less-than-competent kitchen, the restaurant might as well be built next to a sewage plant.Â
What Efes does bring to the table is a pedigree. Ozturk and her sister Ayse Cecen opened Bosphorus, a stylish Turkish eatery in Winter Park that was quite well-received. But Park Avenue palates differ from those on the Seminole-Volusia County border, so it's hard not to admire Ozturk for boldly serving an all-Turkish menu in Sanford.
It's an extensive, almost profuse, bill of fare that immediately overwhelms and leaves you wondering if quality and execution can be maintained for such an array of dishes. For every zeytinyagli yaprak dolmasi ($7.95), grape leaves densely packed with rice, pine nuts, black currants and herbs, there's a beyaz peynirli pide ($14.95), a thick-doughed, overly spinached feta cheese pie. The former is lemony-fresh and invigorating; the latter is as unnecessary as a fez on a Shriner. Entrees follow the same pattern: In the mixed grill ($31.95), lamb and chicken kofta combined a deft mix of texture and flavor; the succulent lamb chop was hindered by a slight gaminess; and the rest of the medley of meats were too desiccated to enjoy. The cardboard-like texture of minced lamb and chicken adana was a head-shaking disappointment, but it was the roasted lamb sis that showed my jaw who was boss. An overhead fan pointed directly at our table may have exacerbated the quick-dry action, but I can't bring myself to give the kitchen the benefit of the doubt.Â
Grilled bronzini (market price, $26.95) was an appropriate selection given the Mediterranean-like environs, and the sea bass, served whole, evoked memories of the one I sampled at the Oceanaire Seafood Room. A simple preparation is all that was required and that's precisely what we got. Sweet flesh, crispy skin and a few squeezes of lemon: We were blissfully content. Superlatives also deserve to be thrown at Efes' lavas bread ($2.99). At once thick and airy, the flatbread rises above the ones served at other Turkish restaurants. Desserts, like saturated baklava ($5.50) and kunefe ($4.95) ' a Shredded Wheat-like pastry filled with cheese ' merely tread water.
With so many items on the menu, a paring-down would bring focus and certainly help the restaurant avoid wallowing in the depths of mediocrity. Short of that, Efes is just another room with a view.