Housemade bread and roasted garlic, Kalamata olive, and olive oil dip.
Kabak mücver (zucchini cakes) with tzatsiki.
Hunkar begendi (sultan’s delight) with lamb and eggplant purée.
Kaymakli kayisi (stuffed apricots).
A view of the dining room.
I’m a big fan of nice, especially when it comes to restaurants. Nice people make food taste better, starting with the nice person who greets you when you walk in, to the nice chef who is in love with making bread, to the nice server pouring your wine. And up on Potrero Hill, ~PERA~ is brimming over with nice.
Owner Irfan Yalcin and his wife Sherry Wilson are running this casual and friendly Turkish restaurant, staffed with many family members and friends. It’s a simple room, tidy as a pin, with warm wood tables, comfortable chairs, a softly patterned banquette in sage green, and Turkish scarves and other folksy woven pieces displayed on the butter yellow walls. The light is comfortably dim in the evening, but come in for lunch during the week (also served on Saturday), and you will notice more of the colorful details. I also appreciate the modulated volume of the dining room here—you can absolutely carry on a conversation with ease and hear every dang word, and whaddya know, you don’t have to pay fine dining prices for it!
Some people like to have their own appetizers and entrées, but Pera, true to Mediterranean form, is a place where it’s better to share. I could make a meal of the appetizers alone (there are 13 in all), starting with a favorite, the kabak mücver (zucchini cake, $7.50), tender fritters of shredded zucchini with feta and the bright tastes of parsley, mint, and dill—they come with a small side of the tzatsiki—made with housemade yogurt—and mint. In fact, get an order of the tzatsiki ($5.50) to have on the side—the quality of the yogurt makes all the difference. (It also goes well with any pilaf you may have later.)
Classics like melizano salata (grilled eggplant, $6.50), buttery börek/spanakopita ($7.50), and tender dolmas ($7) are expertly and freshly made. Both times I couldn’t say no to the piyaz/fasolia gigantes ($8), creamy gigante beans in a light and lemony vinaigrette made with smoked olive oil, and slices of hard-boiled egg (that were a touch overdone) on top. If you’re not afraid of garlic, order the fried mussels ($10), which are plump and juicy, well-coated in a beer batter, and come with a garlicky walnut sauce on the side.
And the bread! The house bread says a lot about a place. Here you get a basket with pita and delightful slices of warm bread that taste like “mom bread” (it’s made fresh daily)—you’ll dunk it in the accompanying bowl of extra virgin olive oil, Kalamata olive, and roasted garlic until everything is all gone, trust me. I loved the bread so much that they even sent me home with a little loaf that I was able to warm up the next day.
Entrées continue on the affordable path, ranging from chicken shish kebab ($14), which uses Mary’s free-range chicken, to a lamb shish kebab ($16) that was a bit too assertively flavored with rosemary (both plates came with salad and rice pilaf). The hands-down favorite was the hunkar begendi/sultan’s delight ($17), with tender cubes of roasted lamb loin, dressed in an herbaceous tomato sauce with silky, golden onions folded in, over a bed of creamy eggplant purée. It’s a stellar and sensuous dish, with hints of smoke and deep flavor. Chef Muhammet Culha is a fan of making his own pasta, so don’t be surprised with a few unexpected additions on the menu, say, ravioli mixed in with more traditional dishes, like a rich pastitsio ($14).
The dessert offering is full of stars: the baklava ($6) is spectacular, sticky with honey, and really one of the better ones I’ve had (just ignore the incongruous garnishes of sliced strawberry and blueberries on the side). But this is the dish that blew my mind with its simplicity: the plump Turkish kaymakli kayisi (stuffed apricots, $7) that the kitchen stuffs with a combination of mascarpone and cream and then rolls in ground pistachios. They’re full of luscious apricot flavor, and it kind of boggles my mind how tender and sweet they are. Yes, they’re a must-get. Another winner: the housemade yogurt ($6)—so thick and rich—served with fresh fruit, honey, and nuts on top. I would get an order of the yogurt (plain) to go so you could have it for breakfast the next morning, it’s that special. And there’s also the sütlac/rizogola ($6), a very homey baked rice pudding that is a good one for folks who enjoy rice pudding (I do). But again, ignore the strawberry/blueberry garnish.
A few extra bonuses to know about: there’s a spacious private room in the back with room for 35 that you can book for no extra charge. Even if you’re far from Potrero Hill, it’s a relatively easy place to park, so don’t let the distance deter you. And on Wednesdays, the restaurant offers 50% off on all bottles of wine—here’s your chance to try some Turkish wine, feel free to ask for guidance. (Which reminds me: they also have some nice beers on the list, like Leffe Blonde from Belgium and Deschutes Mirror Pond Pale Ale from Oregon, along with a Turkish pilsner, if you’re curious.)
Lastly, be sure to order Turkish coffee at the end of your meal. Not only did they instruct me on how to make it at home, but one of the smiley servers even sat down to read my fortune in the coffee grounds when I was all done. I can already tell you what yours will say: I hope you ordered the apricots.