Talking about the weather is a venerable human pastime, and Pittsburgh gives us a lot to work with. Usually, complaints seem to top the list. Can you believe how hot it's been? Rain, again?
But not this summer. For the past month, anyway, it's been like waking up in Southern California every day. This sustained run of perfect, sunny days and cool, velvety evenings has led us to pursue a sort of Western Pennsylvania version of the West Coast lifestyle. No, we can't surf, but we can eat outdoors every chance we get.
One recent evening when it was too nice to retire indoors, we strolled to Daphne, on Ellsworth Avenue, to partake of its pretty little deck and Middle Eastern cuisine. Daphne's accent is Turkish, but its menu will be familiar to even the occasional Middle Eastern diner: hummus, falafel, gyros, shish kebab. Though we noted a few lesser-known items in the mix, it was clear that if Daphne was going to distinguish itself, it was going to be through execution, not novelty.
And it began distinguishing itself immediately, with a mixed-appetizer platter — three appetizers, our choice. We selected baba ghanoush, ezme (minced tomato salad) and lebni (strained yogurt with walnuts, herbs, garlic and olive oil) and were pleased by their presentation: Though served together on a single plate, long slices of cucumber were employed as barriers between them.
We were pleased by the flavors, too. The baba ghanoush was rich, creamy and nutty with tahini, and with substantial chunks of eggplant in each bite. Although the eggplant was described as char-grilled and smoked, the puree didn't taste very smoky. Lebni had a custardy consistency and a mild flavor in which yogurt's tartness was balanced by walnuts' bitter meatiness and by the bright bite of herbs. Ezme was vibrantly red blend of tomato, "hot spices," garlic, onions, lemon juice and olive oil. Its surprisingly gazpacho-like flavor was an excellent foil for the other two, richer appetizers. The pitas served with the appetizers were superior: thick and pillowy, and slightly crisped by a moment on the grill.
The mixed grill offered another opportunity to sample several preparations at once. Nearly paper-thin slices of gyro meat were as addictive as potato chips; even without all the fixings of the famous sandwich, the richly flavored lamb was supremely satisfying. Equally satisfying was adana, a skinless lamb sausage cooked on a skewer, with plentiful flecks of red pepper and lightly spicy seasonings. Two little lamb chops were cut thin, so as not to bust the budget. But even on a grill hot enough to sear their outsides, the chops' interior remained tender and cleanly flavored. Cubed white-meat chicken, cooked shish-kebab style, might have been best of all. Richly marinated, the meat was juicy, tender and the opposite of bland. Grilled chicken breast doesn't get much better than this.
A lamb burger continued the theme of well-grilled meat, essentially putting kofta — ground, spiced lamb — between two halves of a bun. The fact that this bun was closer to a ciabatta than to a soft, American-style one was another point in its favor. The surprise of this dish was that the accompanying fries were well above average: crisp without and fluffy within. They were on the pale side, which limited their flavor potential, but nevertheless, a solid effort by a kitchen that doesn't specialize in pub grub.
The Daphne salad offered summer's crunchiest vegetables — green pepper and cucumber — along with tomato and, instead of leafy greens, handfuls of fresh mint and parsley in a light lemon-olive oil dressing. Nor did we have any complaints about Daphne's falafel: The golf-ball-size chick-pea fritters were suitably crunchy-crispy outside and light inside, without graininess or toughness. They came with a dip whose creamy nuttiness suggested ample portions of tahini.
Daphne's desserts were a mix of housemade, locally sourced and, in the case of pistachio baklava, imported from New York City. We enjoyed a sturdy, cocoa-y tiramisu with a tiny cup of thick, sweet Turkish coffee. It was a wonderful way to finish a wonderful meal. Even if this weather doesn't last, dinner at Daphne could become a habit.