Much of European cuisine has evolved over centuries of wars and occupations, often birthing hybrid fare that utilized the best elements of both.
One such culinary crossroad was southeastern Turkey's province of Şanlıurfa . Known as Urfa, it can be traced back 11,000 years and has been dominated by dozens of civilizations. As a result, modern cuisine from Urfa carries Turkish, Syrian, Armenian, Arabic and Kurdish roots and since late 2015, Urfa Bistro has offered the Midpeninsula a taste of it.
Growing up in the restaurant industry in Urfa, owner Zubi Duygu's grandfather and immediate family were all in the business. Duygu owned restaurants in Burlingame, San Francisco and Berkeley before opening Urfa Bistro in Los Altos. His brother, Memet, who earned his culinary stripes in Istanbul, is the chef.
"We make everything from scratch," Duygu said. "We bake bread daily and make sure every table has a basket of fresh, warm bread. We have branzino flown in daily on Lufthansa from Bodrum (on the Aegean Sea). Every order in the restaurant is made to order. We cook nothing ahead."
While there is an increasing number of Turkish and Middle Eastern restaurants in the area, most are indistinguishable from each other. Urfa Bistro though, was quite distinctive. Not only was the food a notch above, the menu broke away from the usual lamb and chicken kebabs served with red and green bell peppers and onions.
There are some of the usual suspects on the menu, but at Urfa they are spiced differently -- often using isot pepper -- and presented more artistically, with vividly colored foods on white porcelain plates. The isot is a pepper with a smoky raisin-like flavor, not sinus-clearing hot, but one that lingers peaceably on the palate.
Urfa Bistro encompasses more than just Turkish delights. It is a Mediterranean bistro with a broader focus. The chilled tomato gazpacho ($7) featured chunks of fresh tomatoes, onions and a hint of garlic topped with wedges of avocado. It was a refreshing start to lunch.
The grilled octopus ($12) made a vibrant plate. Braised, then grilled, the cephalopod was served over a slice of grilled honeydew melon with cherry tomatoes, arugula and olive tapenade.
The octopus was beautiful on the plate, but of the four pieces, two were overly salty and two were not. The different levels of saltiness unbalanced the plate and diminished the pleasure.
That was just about my only complaint. The spanakopita appetizer ($9) was delicious, four wedges of golden puff pastry stuffed with feta cheese, onions and sautéed spinach.
Another traditional dish, moussaka ($18), was a generous portion of layered eggplant, potato, ground beef and mozzarella cheese topped with béchamel and tomato sauces. Luscious and soft under its tomato-y coat, every bite was rich and rewarding.
My favorite dish was the Beyti kebab ($17). Ground beef and lamb had been wrapped in lavash flatbread and topped with tomato sauce, with a splash of yogurt on the side. It was a fitting tribute to its creator, Istanbul chef Beyti Güler, who introduced it on his menu in 1961.
Beyti kebab reminded me of a cross between an aram sandwich and lasagna -- an aram sandwich because of the lavash wrap, and lasagna thanks to the meat filling and tomato sauce topping. It was Middle Eastern comfort food at its finest.
At lunch, the restaurant served wraps in addition to an abbreviated menu. The savory ground chicken wrap ($11) was wrapped tightly in lavash with lightly spiced and charbroiled chicken, tomatoes, onions, lettuce and tahini sauce inside. The accompanying French fries were nicely crisp.
Save room for the desserts; they're worth it. My favorite was the kunefe ($9) -- wiry shreds of phyllo dough wrapped around mozzarella cheese and baked golden, then topped with crushed pistachios.
The two enchanting squares of baklava ($7) were honeyed, buttery, nutty delights, topped with candied orange peel. The rice pudding ($7) was too creamy, reminding me of tapioca pudding, lacking that tiny bit of grain that defines rice pudding.
Urfa Bistro seats 40 inside and has a back patio where dogs (and their owners) are welcome. There is also sidewalk seating on State Street.
The restaurant serves beer and wine, and has a prompt and knowledgeable waitstaff.
Urfa Bistro is a cut above most of the Middle Eastern restaurants in the area. Duygu is a passionate owner who takes great measure importing authentic ingredients. In the kitchen, chef Memet knows how to turn those ingredients into delicious dishes.
233 State St., Los Altos
Hours: Daily, 11:30 a.m to 2:30 p.m., 5-9 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Parking: city lots
Alcohol: beer and wine
Happy hour: no
Outdoor dining: patio and streetside
Noise level: moderate
Bathroom cleanliness: very good