Step in to Black Sea restaurant any day at lunch or dinner time, and you’ll see tables packed with happy diners. The first Turkish restaurant to open in Minnesota, and until recently, the only one, Black Sea has been a family business from the beginning. Black Sea’s original location on Snelling Avenue in St. Paul was opened in February 2000 by Ali Akilli, who wanted to bring Turkish food and culture to Minnesotans. In 2008, Akilli’s nephew Tolga Ata took over. In 2014, the restaurant’s success led Ata and his wife Cigdem to open a second location in White Bear Lake, offering area residents the chance to enjoy the food without the drive.
Ercan Intepe, who currently manages the St. Paul location, has a love for Turkish cuisine that’s evident. “Even though most people didn’t know about Turkish food, we’re happy that the restaurant was popular from the beginning, says Intepe.“Turkey has many different kitchens,” says Intepe. “Every region has its own traditional foods. The Mediterranean region uses lots of olive oil, vegetables, and herbs. The Anatolia region, from the middle of Turkey to the eastern part, uses a lot of butter— the butter is very good there. The meat tastes different in different parts of the country—it depends what the cattle eat. The southeast part of Turkey is famous for their kabobs—they are known there for the best meat.”
Some of the most popular dishes on Black Sea’s menu are the beef and lamb sandwiches— “doner” in Turkish, “gyro” in Greek—pressed meat that’s seasoned and cooked on a spit, with pieces thinly sliced off to serve. Kofte, Turkish meatballs, made of seasoned ground beef, are also a favorite.
“And the chicken kebabs,” says Intepe, “It’s the marinade—people love it. “What’s in the marinade?’ People always ask us that, but we don’t say,” says Intepe, smiling. “It’s our secret”. [Editor’s note: I admit to having tried to pry the marinade recipe from Intepe, to no avail. It really is a secret.]
There’s also a spicy chicken plate made with gyro meat and a hot tomato-based sauce.
For those who crave the American classics, Black Sea offers hamburgers, cheeseburgers and fries.
Groups that have both vegetarians and carnivores can happily coexist at Black Sea. Scratch-made falafel, fried eggplant, and dolmas (stuffed grape leaves) are some of the vegetarian options.
The lentil soup, also house-made, with red lentils and spices is popular with meat-eaters and non-meat eaters alike, as are the sautéed spinach and spinach borek (Turkish-style spinach pie.)
For dessert, there’s rice pudding and baklava, both house-made. And, of course, Turkish coffee, the perfect accompaniment for that rich baklava. “Coffee is very important in Turkish culture,” says Intepe, “and there are lots of sayings about it, like ‘Coffee should be black as hell, strong as death, and sweet as love’, and ‘A cup of Turkish coffee is remembered for 40 years.’” Intepe explains that hospitality is an important Turkish value, and coffee is a symbol of that.
Intepe says there’s a tradition of people reading fortunes from the grounds left in the cup of the Turkish coffee. “I don’t know how,” Intepe laughs, “but some people do.”
There’s also freshly brewed iced and hot Turkish tea if you’re not seeking the full-on caffeine jolt of the Turkish coffee.
The fresh, well-seasoned food and reasonable prices are what keep customers coming back to Black Sea. What does Intepe like best about it? “When I bring the food over to the table, and I see people smile, that’s what makes me happy,” says Intepe.
Black Sea’s Red Lentil Soup
There’s no need to soak red lentils (so you can make this easy, healthy dinner when the mood strikes you).
Turkish Red Lentil Soup
- 3 Tbsp. olive oil, more for drizzling
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 Tbsp. tomato paste
- 1 tsp. ground cumin
- 1 tsp. paprika
- ½ tsp. dried thyme (or use 1 ½ tsp. fresh if available)
- ¼ tsp. kosher (coarse) salt, more to taste
- ¼ tsp. ground black pepper
- Pinch of cayenne powder (more to taste)
- 1 qt. chicken or vegetable broth
- 2 cups water
- 1 cup red lentils
- 3 large carrots, peeled and diced
- Juice of 1/2 lemon, more to taste
In a large pot, heat 3 tablespoons oil over high heat until hot (oil will coat bottom of pan easily and will look like it’s shimmering. Add onion and garlic, and sauté until golden, about 4 minutes. Stir in tomato paste, cumin, salt, black pepper and cayenne, paprika and thyme. Sauté for another 2 minutes. Add broth, 2 cups water, lentils and carrots. Bring to a simmer, then cover pot halfway, and turn heat to medium-low. Simmer until lentils are soft, about 30 minutes. Taste and add salt if necessary. Use an immersion blender to bring soup to the desired consistency desired. (The soup is usually served thick and chunky.) Stir in lemon juice. Serve soup drizzled with good olive oil and dusted lightly with paprika or cayenne if desired.
Gyros, doners, kebabs—what’s the difference?
Gyros and doners: Two different names for the same thing. Doner is Turkish, gyro is Greek.
Gyro: Turned on a spit. From the greek gyros—turn, revolution.
Doner: From the Turkish, donmek—to turn or return.
Kebab: Chunk of meat.