Chef Zeynep Güngören hails from Izmir, the third largest city in Turkey. Izmir, known as Smyrna until 1930, is located on the Aegean Sea. Not surprisingly, given its location, Greece and Turkey have squabbled over the city for millennia. The ancient site was once famous as one of Greece’s most important ports and later became a key site in Alexander the Great’s empire. Even today, its residents share strong influences of both countries.
An aesthetician by trade, Güngören is new to the world of the professional kitchen. But after taking a first bite of her tzatziki, moussaka, or baklava, diners will realize that this isn’t an inadequacy but a stroke of luck for them to be able to discover this fresh talent.
Zeynep and her husband, Alp Güngören, opened Smyrna Restaurant a year ago. Since then, it has attracted a hushed buzz among area food obsessives. It’s not just the ingredients on plates that are fresh — Alp believes that Smyrna is the only restaurant in the United States serving the Izmir-inspired, pan-Aegean cuisine in which he and his wife trade.
For diners who can’t decide between Greek and Turkish for their next meal out, Smyrna has tastes of both, but national borders shouldn’t dictate what one orders. Zeynep cooks the food of her Aegean family, which combines the influences of her Greek grandmother and her parents, including her Turkish chef father. “Our goal is to transport our guests to the warm shores of the Aegean,” says Alp.
The young couple settled in the U.S. five years ago, with Alp previously working at Michelin-recognized Levantine restaurant Ala and Turkish restaurant Ottoman Taverna, both in DC. It was his dream to have a business of his own with his wife’s big flavors on full display. This is a service to us, complete with the well-versed front-of-house team he manages.
To attract neighborhood diners, the couple, who also are parents to two young children, offer low-cost prix fixe menus that make every day at Smyrna feel like Restaurant Week. For $35, dinner guests are treated to four courses known as the Aegean Odyssey. It’s a good starting point, but reasonable prices on the á la carte menu mean that for most, it’s worth a few more dollars per person to order dishes like the spread sampler.
I always thought tzatziki was a little boring, more worthy of inclusion in a gyro than as a stand-alone appetizer. That was before I tried Zeynep’s version. Singing with mint and with a light pucker of fresh yogurt, the cucumber dip tastes new. Fewer diners will be familiar with Turkish atom, a crave-worthy portion of labneh (strained yogurt) that’s given a spicy topping of sundried chiles in sanguine-looking melted butter.
Among the five other dips on the menu, hummus is the only forgettable entry, lacking in both acidity and garlic. But others make up for it. The baba ghanoush (on the menu as baba-ghannush) is exceptionally creamy, thanks to the addition of Greek yogurt to smooth out the texture of the charred eggplant with tahini. Pembe sultan pairs finely chopped beets with labneh and garlic for a sweet surprise that never verges on dessert.
Her dolmades will win over even a diner who dislikes grape leaves. The warm center of rice is dotted with pine nuts for texture and sweet dried black currants. They’re served in pools of tangy yogurt sauce that enliven each comforting bite.
Whatever starter diners choose, they should add the saganaki for the entertainment alone. The server who lit our portion of stretchy kasseri cheese aflame with a dousing Metaxa, a Greek muscat-blended spirit, looked genuinely gleeful to play with fire for us. The lemon-tempered result was every bit as delightful on the palate.
Among entrées, moussaka, with its pairing of melty kashkaval cheese and bechamel sauce, is a lush, mouth-coating extravaganza of texture and flavor. The eggplants and potatoes layered with ground beef are tender, but never mushy. A bowl stacked with petite Turkish manti — beef-filled dumplings in dueling garlicky yogurt and spicy tomato-based sauce — is just as satisfying, in part thanks to a shower of mint.
But an argument could be made to skip the entrées and order multiple starters and desserts.
The chocolate baklava isn’t just filled with chocolate, it is made with layered leaves of chocolate phyllo dough, then finished with chocolate ice cream. Excessive? Yes, in the best possible way. The pastry is far from dry but doesn’t suffer from even a hint of the waterlog that baklavas often do. It crackles and shatters outside and oozes from within.
But to stop there would mean missing out on the other pleasures at hand. Chocolate fiends could go for another application of their favorite vice and try the pasta sokolatina — Greek chocolate cake. A layer of cream rests atop pleasantly rugged cake, all enrobed in ganache.
Ask the Güngörens, though, and they will say to try the rice pudding. It’s emulsified with mastic, a plant resin that’s responsible for the gummy chew of Turkish Delight, among other desserts. The cinnamon-scented, al dente grains of rice in a thick cream are oven-baked for a browned top, then served chilled.
The neighborhood has welcomed Smyrna with both OpenTable Diners’ Choice and NextDoor Neighborhood Fave awards, and it can be a challenge to land a table at the small restaurant on weekends. For that reason, the Güngörens are already pondering a move to a larger spot.
Zeynep says the greatest reward is that she’s making her family proud. And she’s doing it by sharing their culture with her new neighbors, transporting them, for a moment, to the Aegean coast.
Rating: ★★★ 1/2
See This: A palette of blue and white sets the seaside scene. For some (actual) fire, order the saganaki and watch it flambé tableside.
Eat This: Spread sampler, moussaka, chocolate baklava
Open daily for lunch and dinner, plus weekend brunch.
7588 Telegraph Rd., Alexandria
Feature image by Shannon Ayres