It could have been just another random conversation, forgotten in the chitchat haze of pleasantries that so often transpires between an Uber driver and their rider.
But something about Mehmet Ergin stuck with my friend, Aaron, who’d hopped into Ergin’s gray Honda in September for a ride to his cousin’s wedding in Center City. As the conversation unfurled, the affable Ergin spoke of his career as a chef, of his many years working for others after coming to Philadelphia from Turkey in 2010. And then he spoke of his plans to open his own restaurant at a Northern Liberties corner BYOB called Pera Turkish Cuisine.
“We must go,” says Aaron who texted me shortly after the exchange.
It’s impossible to predict how such random personal encounters will pan out at a table. But when Aaron and I dove into our plates of spectacularly crisp-yet-tender calamari, the subtly flavored hand-rolled grape leaves, and the intensely savory ribbons of house-made doner kebab that is hands-down the best new gyro in town, I knew this recommendation was a major score.
The Philadelphia region is already in the midst of a welcome bump in worthy new Turkish options, from the new Turkish owner of Kanella (previously Cypriot) to unassuming-but-delicious Ephesus Grill in a Glendora strip mall in South Jersey, where a former chef from Paprica Grill is making some of the best adana kebabs around.
But Pera — which opened in early February in a former branch of Dmitri’s with a light renovation, its exposed brick walls now festooned with Turkish plates and new live-edge black walnut tables filling its cozy, sunny windowed space — is my favorite to date.
Ergin, 32, who trained at the W Hotel in Istanbul, followed by culinary studies at Rowan College, worked a decade ago at Divan Turkish Kitchen, a long-closed favorite in Graduate Hospital, before commuting for nearly nine years to Princeton where he was a chef-manager at Efes Grill.
His menu here is a straight-up homage to Turkish classics at Pera, which is named for a popular neighborhood in Istanbul (and not connected to other Peras in New York or Chicago). But what distinguishes the food here is Ergin’s touch, his close attention to freshness, scratch cooking, and deliberate techniques that are essential to rendering traditional dishes in their most vivid state.
The calamari, for example, must be prepared with a specific order of layered seasonings for maximum tenderness — first sugar, then salt, then lemon, then baking powder and flour. Once fried, they’re both flavorful and shatteringly crisp and irresistible beside their red pepper dip: “Add the spices all at once and it doesn’t work. The calamari becomes chewy.”
The mucver zucchini patties must be fully, patiently drained of liquid once they’re shredded, then fried to order. Unlike other rubbery versions I’ve had, these were crisp and so light inside they were almost fluffy.
Even a vegetable dip on the meze combo like ezme is complicated when it’s done properly. If you simply put tomato, hot peppers, onions, and walnuts into a food processor with pomegranate juice, “it makes mush,” says Ergin. He favors the ancient technology of a Turkish zirh, a medieval-looking curved blade large enough to mince them all simultaneously by hand. It may still look like a puree, but when you taste it, each of the ingredients is still individually perceptible in shifting shades of flavor — the pepper’s heat, the juicy tomatoes, the meaty walnuts, the savory onions, the sweet-tart kiss of pomegranate.
There’s a reason 99% of Mediterranean restaurants in America buy stuffed grape leaves premade. They’re labor intensive. But Pera’s are worth the effort. The tautly rolled cigar-shaped bundles have the telltale snap of handmade, and the rice inside is perfectly textured, with the delicate sweetness of caramelized onions and black currants perfumed with allspice, cinnamon, and mint.
The house doner kebab is a rare wonder of butchercraft in a genre that’s too often prefab and outsourced. Ergin purees of veal breast and lamb with cumin, onions, and oregano, then layers it between whole slices of lamb breast every one-and-a-half-inches into a tower of meat that sizzles as it spins on the gyro skewer. It’s wonderful on its own, but it’s perhaps even better as part of an Iskender, covered with tomato sauce over pita croutons drizzled with clarified paprika butter beside a charred long hot pepper and a cooling dollop of yogurt.
Pera has only 36 seats and no reservations, so you’re likely to end up waiting. The dining room was filled on two of my visits with large parties of Turkish families celebrating special events. Tables can take a moment to turn over, as Ergin’s partner and manager, Eric Haryri Tunc, another Divan alum, politely runs the front of the house.
But it was worth the wait. Especially for showstopping entrees like the hunkar begendi.
I’ve had my share of great lamb shanks. But this one is epic, brined overnight then cooked confit-style for six hours. Its flavor-packed tender meat unfolds with the tug of a fork into feathery plumes over an intensely smoked eggplant puree that’s similar to the baba ganoush, but enriched with cheese instead of tahini.
Anything off Pera’s grill is a good bet, with the exception of the lamb chops that were underwhelmingly plain (and slightly overcooked) considering they were the most expensive entree at $35. The adana kebaps, however, were full of juicy flavor, the lamb version butchered in house from halal meat and ground with paprika and smoky Marash peppers; the chicken version is seasoned with milder peppers and garlic. The hearty mixed grill covers a variety of the other basics, including that doner and shish kebap chunks of marinated chicken and lamb leg.
There are many other worthy flavors here to explore, from the simple but delicious chopped shepherd salad to the tiny manti from an artisan in North Jersey who stuffs the chewy little dumplings with a caramelized onion and lamb stuffing made to Ergin’s recipe. They’re served at Pera in a glistening orange puddle of paprika oil with yogurt.
Pera now makes one of Philadelphia’s most craveable renditions of calves’ liver and onions. There’s just something magnetic about the flash-fried cubes of liver that then get sauteed in clarified butter beside a crunchy pile of shaved red onions dusted in tangy sumac, a style of arnavut cigeri typical of Ergin’s home city of Bolu, near the Black Sea.
That ancestral proximity to the waters’ edge may also explain why Ergin is so deft with seafood. His shrimp kebap surprised me with the depth of its flavor from a marinade of bay leaf, lemon zest, and paprika. But his whole dorado, slow-cooked on the grill, stuffed with herbs, and posed over a plate swiped with crimson beet puree, brought me back to an unforgettable fish dinner alongside the Bosphorus in Istanbul many years ago.
I’ve chewed through too many sad, dry squares of pre-bought baklava over the years at various Mediterranean restaurants that did fine with the kebaps but didn’t quite have enough energy left for dessert. But when the sweets arrive at Pera along with a hot little cup of intense Mehmet Efendi Turkish coffee, Ergin does not let up. You’ll see the pans of fresh-baked baklava gleaming golden inside the glass case beside his open kitchen, and its pistachio-laced phyllo is as flaky from clarified butter and as sweet with fresh syrup soaking through its bottom layers as it looks.
And yet, it wasn’t even my favorite dessert. The creamy Turkish rice pudding dusted with cinnamon and pistachio was irresistible. But the kunefe was exceptional, a still-hot metal pan bearing a round of shredded kataifi filled with molten mozzarella and Turkish cheese. Its savory tang was anointed with just the right amount of sweet syrup that clung to the nest of crunchy pastry that surrounded its stretchy core.
The only disappointment came after we paid the bill and my friend Aaron went back to the kitchen to surprise his former Uber driver. Mehmet Ergin was … gone?
“It was my first day off since we opened,” Ergin later lamented, touched that such a passing connection, perhaps one of dozens he’d had as a driver while awaiting the opening of his restaurant, had lingered. “I thought at the time, ‘He’s going to forget me.’ But he did not forget, and I really appreciate that.”
Pera Turkish Cuisine
The Inquirer is not currently giving bell ratings to restaurants due to the pandemic.
944 N. Second St., 215-660-9471; peraphiladelphia.com
Open Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, until 9:30 p.m.
Reservations not accepted.
Street parking only.