Turkish chef Ozgur “Figo” Akcay is introducing Sun Prairie diners to Mediterranean food in the same spot that he worked as a dishwasher 18 years ago.
Meze, at 503 Main St. opened in early November with Ozgur bringing in a menu that is unique to a city more accustomed to pizza, burger and fast food restaurants.
Ozgur should know, when he immigrated from Turkey in 2001, his first job was at Pietro’s Pizza in Sun Prairie, the same location in which he serendipitous now has Meze.
At their new restaurant, Ozgur and his wife Seda have crafted a menu that highlights Turkish food and their decades of experience in the restaurant industry.
Ozgur most recently was the kitchen supervisor at the at the downtown Madison Hilton.
Seda’s family owns a restaurant in Ankara, Turkey which the couple helped run for more than a year when they returned home.
Meze is a term for appetizers in Turkish and Mediterranean cuisine. The restaurant’s menu features small plates of hummus, eggplant salad, calamari, stuffed grape leaves, and cigar borek—crispy phyllo rolls with crumbled feta cheese and parsley.
The couple was inspired to open a Turkish restaurant so they wouldn’t have to make a 300-mile road trip for their homeland specialties.
“We kept asking ourselves why we were driving down to Chicago to get Turkish food when we could open our own restaurant,” Ozgur said, sitting in the Meze dining room that is decorated with dark wood, Turkish lights, and hand-hammered brass bowls.
Turkish cuisine developed its uniqueness, influenced by ancient spice routes and being at the crossroads between the far east and Mediterranean.
At Meze, Adana kebabs are char-grilled lamb seasoned with finely chopped red peppers, onions and special herbs. The gyro meat in the doner kebab is thinly sliced and served with tzatziki sauce, all from Seda’s family recipe.
“Most of our customers don’t know about Mediterranean food, so we train our servers to explain the menu,” Ozgur said.
The Meze website, www.mezemediterranean.com, shows photos of menu items to entice foodies.
Seda, who specializes in cooking international foods at MATC, makes other Turkish foods including kofte, a grilled Turkish meatball made with beef blended with onion, parsley, and other spices.
Stuffed grape leaves, quinoa tabouli, falafel, and white bean salad provide vegetarian menu options.
The emphasis is on homemade and organic, with no shortcuts in the kitchen.
“Everything is made fresh here. There is nothing frozen,” Ozgur said of the menu.
Meze also features the Italian food of Akcay’s diverse culinary background with chicken parmesan, salmon piccata, shrimp scampi and more.
Entrees from ($14-$18) are served with salad, vegetables, and a rice pilaf made with orzo pasta. Fresh-baked focaccia with rosemary and sea salt arrives on diner’s tables with a signature dipping sauce of olive oil and a za’atar spice mix with dried thyme and sesame. Wine and beer are served to compliment the dishes.
Ozgur and Seda said cooking traditional Turkish food again has made them appreciate their new found freedom in the kitchen.
“The most important thing is that we get to cook what we want,” Ozgur said. “If you cook somewhere else, you have to follow their recipes.”
But they still contend with some culinary debate among themselves, including which nuts to put in the baklava. Seda likes walnuts but Ozgur won out with pistachios.
The couple, who have a four-year-old son and a baby on the way, say that their families back in Turkey were pretty excited to see them open their own restaurant in the United States.
“They were very happy and asking about everything and giving us ideas on what to do,” Seda said.
Meze is located at 503 W. Main St. Phone (608) 318-0010. Find more information at www.mezemediterranean.com or Facebook.