"I want to keep eating - but I can't. There's too much... but it tastes so good"
- Credit: Simon Weir
It can be a bit dispiriting walking along Newmarket high street at the moment, seeing the number of empty shops. Thankfully fresh life has been breathed into one of the most iconic buildings: the bow-fronted Art Deco building that was once a cinema and then a nightclub has now been transformed into the Turkoman Bar & Grill.
My partner Ali and I tried to book for the opening week (June 10) but were too slow off the mark. The 10 days we have to wait for free tables and babysitting align only heighten the anticipation and I have a good feeling as we walk towards it. The building looks smart, with a fresh coat of white paint on the pillars and tasteful signage. There's a hand-sanitising station on the way in, though no QR-code to check in on the Covid app.
We're shown to one of the tables - there are a couple of booths for larger parties but mostly it seems to be set up for couples and indeed most of the tables are full and, as we eat, groups of two come and go. It's a pleasant interior - marble floor, soft lighting - with the bar dominating the room and a semi-open kitchen.
Service is quick and, as drinks are brought over (draught Cobra at £4.95 and a medium white wine at £6.50) so too are some nibbles - though that makes them sound small. In fact there's a basket of flat breads, olives, tzatziki and a superb - slightly spicy - tomato dip. "That tastes amazing," Ali enthuses. She's right.
We both keep saying the same thing, as we ladle more of the dips onto the delicious bread: don't fill up on this now. Inevitably, we fail to limit our consumption... it's too tasty to leave sitting there.
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The menu is extensive - a good range of hot starters and cold ones, plus meze platters (though the cold meze is for three-to-four people). We've gone for the mixed hot meze (£14.90 for two or £25.90 for four). "You have to have a meze - it's all the best bits," notes Ali. This one consists of sigra boregi, calamari, halloumi, sucuk and falafel, served on a generous bed of humus.
The sigra boregi is a filo-pasty cigar, stuffed with feta cheese and parsley - and it's delicious, with a crispy shell and enough filling to stop it being dry. The calamari might be the best I've had in the UK: seriously thick, crispy batter and perfectly cooked squid but not at all greasy. The halloumi is cut so thick and grilled so perfectly I realise I've been doing it wrong all these years, the humus is fabulous, the falafel meltingly delicious and the sucuk - a Turkish sausage that I have all to myself, as Ali's pescatarian - turns out to be similar to a chorizo and utterly delicious. The whole platter is a huge success.
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It's also pretty filling, which is a bit of a concern. "I'm done now - I don't need a main course," says Ali. I smile weakly, wondering how I'll save room for a pudding. My main course arrives, carried across from the kitchen under a copper dome, which the waitress removes with a pleasing bit of theatre at the table (though I would have liked to get a pic of it...). As you'd imagine in a Turkish restaurant, there are many options for kebabs and I've gone for the Yogurtlu Lamb Beyti (£18.90) - which is a lamb kebab with a tomato sauce and yoghurt, served with ride and bulgur wheat.
Not to be outdone on the carb front, Ali's gone for a Prawn Guvec (£17.90) that consists of prawns, pepper and onions in a tasty sauce - and there are some little potatoes in there as well. The whole thing is topped with cheddar - which tastes nice, even if it doesn't seem exactly authentically Turkish. That also comes with rice and bulgur wheat - a plate of her own, rather than one large plate for us to share - and also with a salad.
It's about now that I start to realise what a terrible mistake I made scoffing all that delicious flatbread when we first arrived. I look across the table and see that Ali is struggling as well. "I want to keep eating - but I can't. There's too much... but it tastes so good," I tell her, putting down the knife and fork. Though I pick them up again and somehow manage to pick demolish 90% of my main course... Ali manages perhaps half of hers - but between us we barely scratch the salad or dent the rice and bulgur wheat. Of course, it's not just the flatbread factor: these are seriously generous portions in their own right.
"You could probably just have the bread and a main and you'd be fine," I suggest to Ali. "The bread and the meze would be perfect for a lunch," she counters. Both fine strategies. I'm a bit concerned that there's no way I can handle a pudding but, thankfully, that's not an option - it's coffee or a drink to finish, though I'm too full to face them.
Despite having been beaten at the table for the first time in many years, I can honestly say this was one of the best meals we've had in ages. The food was fresh, well-presented and absolutely delicious. Our bill was £63.15 - enough that you maybe wouldn't be in every week but definitely not so high that it's a special-occasions-only treat. And for such generous portions of such good food, that feels like real value. A restaurant of this quality really is a great addition to the Newmarket high street.
Turkoman Bar and Grill, 146 High Street, Newmarket, CB8 9EQ. Tel 01638 666868
We pay for all our meals and restaurants do not know they are being reviewed.