Let’s face it — dining out is usually an impersonal, almost mechanical experience where you pay for food, you get your food, you eat, you leave, and you go on with your life. That’s the bare minimum of what we expect, and sometimes that’s what we crave. But how often do any of us visit a restaurant where you feel a warm welcome, like you’ve stepped into someone’s home and they are legitimately happy to see you? There are a few places like that around Orlando — Mediterranean Deli and Se7enbites immediately come to mind.
Another one is Zeytin Turkish Cuisine (https://www.facebook.com/ZeytinTurkishCuisine), a restaurant that has been around for eight years, but I only recently discovered it for myself. I’ve been a late bloomer throughout my life, but finally trying this wonderful food, prepared with skill and love and accompanied by some of the kindest, warmest hospitality I have ever encountered, I wished I had made to this College Park eatery long ago.
This was the lavas bread ($4.95), which you have to order at any Turkish restaurant, and especially at Zeytin. It usually arrives to your table in a dramatic fashion, huge and round, puffed up with hot air, which you then pierce with forks and knives to deflate. Then you tear off pieces of the warm, soft bread (kind of like a pita, but so much better) and dip it into various dips. It was packed in a brown paper bag and mostly deflated by the time I got home, but still just as good as we’ve had before, from elsewhere.
The main reason I went to Zeytin was because my wife was craving babaganush, that smoky, creamy dip made from roasted eggplants, sometimes with garlic, tahini paste, and olive oil added to it. She asked me to find the best babaganush in Orlando, and I received several helpful suggestions on the Orlando Foodie Forum presented by Tasty Chomps!, the burgeoning community of local foodies founded by the civic-minded mensch Ricky Ly. One suggestion stood out to me, from Michele Bourassa, a familiar name from the Foodie Forum. She was the co-owner of Zeytin, and she invited me out to finally try her restaurant. How could I refuse such an offer? I had read great reviews for years and always meant to try it, but I’m rarely out in the College Park area. I called in my order on the way there, and it was all ready by the time I arrived. Michele could not have been nicer, and the babaganush ($8.50) could not have been better. Seriously, I’ve never had its equal, and my wife was over the moon with happiness.
But Michele (a true ray of sunshine and the perfect “front of house” person any restaurant would be grateful to have) and her husband, chef and co-owner Zeynel (everyone calls him “Z”), threw in some extras for us, which they did not have to do! Despite just ordering babaganush, they sent us home with the equivalent of their mixed appetizer platter, with multiple dips to accompany our lavas bread. (I tipped above and beyond, the least I could do for her unheralded generosity.)
This container held their two creamy, yogurt-based dips: cacik, yogurt blended with cucumbers, garlic, dill, and fresh mint, and haydari, thicker yogurt blended with crushed walnuts, garlic, and dill. Both were so refreshing, but I personally preferred the haydari.The word “Zeytin” is Turkish for olive, a favorite delicacy of Chef Z, and we noted that each dip was topped with a kalamata olive. I made sure my wife ended up with all of those.
This container held two separate dips as well: esme on the left, a spicy melange of tomatoes, bell peppers, hot peppers, onions, cornichons, parsley, garlic, crushed walnuts, lemon juice, and olive oil, and soslu patlican on the right, my personal favorite Turkish dip, with sauteed eggplant, tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, and garlic. My wife isn’t into anything spicy or overly tomatoey, so I got to enjoy both of these myself — and let me tell you, I enjoyed them. That was such an unexpected and unnecessary bonus, and we were both so grateful.
Because I wanted to try a meat dish and see how Zeytin handled one of my favorite Turkish dishes from elsewhere, I also ordered the Iskender kebab ($24.95), ground lamb mixed with seasonings, shaped into a loaf, broiled, and served as thin slices. Unlike the more common doner kebab, which uses the same meat, the slices in the Iskender kebab are served over cubes of sautéed, buttered bread so the juices and spices saturate the bread. Normally it is topped with tomato sauce and yogurt, but I figured that might make the dish a soggy mess by the time I got it home.
I asked for both the tomato sauce (see above) and the yogurt (see below) on the side, so I could apply my own, and also my wife could enjoy the sliced lamb plain, free of tomato-based sauces, as she always prefers. The yogurt was cool and creamy, and they gave us so much of it! Back at home, the cubes of bread crisped back up very nicely in our toaster oven, and I chopped some pickles and sprinkled some Penzey’s Turkish seasoning blend into the yogurt. Whatever yogurt I didn’t use with three separate servings of the Iskender kebab, I enjoyed with some chicken later in the week.
I asked if the Iskender kebab came with rice, and it does not, because of the crouton-like cubes of crispy bread underneath. But I figured the rice would be really good at Zeytin, so I asked for a side order of rice. As my wife and I both hoped, it was a buttery rice pilaf with chewy orzo pasta, much like the rice from the dearly departed Beyti Mediterranean Grill, our friendly neighborhood Turkish restaurant that opened in 2020 and closed in 2022. Even when my wife didn’t feel like eating meat, she would send me to Beyti to bring home lavas bread, babaganoush, and that rice. This takeout meal from Zeytin was like revisiting some old friends who were a little different, but had become even better.
Michele also included four pieces of freshly made pistachio baklava for us, a truly sweet and unexpected treat that wowed us in every way possible. It was some of the best baklava we’ve ever had, and not just in Orlando, either.
The following weekend, I took my wife to see an awe-inspiring stage production at Orlando’s Renaissance Theatre, Josephine, a one-woman show about the incredible life of American icon Josephine Baker, starring a local icon, triple-threat (actress-singer-dancer) Tymisha Harris. Afterwards, we headed on to dinner at Zeytin, a mere week after bringing home that bountiful takeout order. I had forgotten that you need to make a reservation for the small dining room, but we were so lucky a table was available, and Michele was able to seat us right away. I introduced Michele to my wife, who quickly and rightfully pointed out that she loved Michele’s kind heart. The only reason you wouldn’t agree is because you haven’t met her yet.
The dining room was pretty full when we arrived that Sunday evening. It seemed like a lot of the crowd was made up of regulars, and we could both understand why. Natural light streamed in and reflected off the beautiful hanging lights made of multicolored glass mosaics, which Chef Z had gotten from Istanbul. There was a fish tank near the entrance, close to our table, and we entertained ourselves throughout our dinner watching the aquatic antics of a tiny turtle.
Michele asked her husband to get our lavas bread ready even before we placed our order. As great as our feast was at home the previous week, most restaurant food is so much better consumed hot and fresh in the dining room itself, and Zeytin was no exception. Here was the steaming, soft lavas bread, fully puffed and fluffed up, ready to be deflated, dipped, and devoured.
We had to order the finest babaganush in Orlando all over again:
And Michele was kind enough to hook us up with small sample dishes of haydari, esme, and smooth, creamy hummus (which I always try to say in a sexy voice like Gal Gadot, but it sounds more like an old man with phlegm caught in his throat, coming from me).
I suggested we order moussaka ($21.95) to share, figuring we would have leftovers that would heat up well. The baked casserole of sliced eggplant, ground lamb, tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, and garlic was topped with a bechamel sauce and molten-hot, melty mozzarella cheese. It was very similar to lasagna, but with layers of eggplant instead of pasta sheets. For this reason, I like the tomato-based Turkish version of moussaka better than Greek versions that don’t have the tomatoes. And while I’ve had a similar version of moussaka at Cappadocia, another Turkish restaurant, Zeytin’s version is definitely my favorite in the city. The moussaka came with a mountain of that wonderful buttery rice pilaf with orzo, which we both loved.
Since we were dining here on a Sunday evening, I couldn’t resist ordering one of my favorite Turkish dishes: lahmacun ($19.95), a throuple of soft baked flatbreads topped with ground lamb, tomatoes, peppers, onions, and spices. I figured I would end up with plenty of leftovers that would heat up well in the microwave at work, but they were so good, they never made it into my workday lunches. I loved the lahmacun (pronounced “llama-JUNE,” but with a soft “j,” as in “bougie”) from Beyti while it was open, and I have even made it from scratch before. But Zeytin’s version blew me away, filling a hole in my heart and staving off my regular Sunday evening despondence for a while. I was impressed that it essentially came with a whole side salad, with chopped romaine lettuce, tomatoes, red onions, cucumbers, and parsley tossed in a very light vinaigrette dressing, which you can roll up inside the lahmacun to eat, like a veggie wrap with meat on the inner wrapping. But there was so much salad, that even after eating all three lahmacun pieces with it, I was able to pack the rest in my work lunch the following Monday. (I also ate the lemon wedges like orange wedges, which is what I usually do with lemon wedges.)
Here’s a close-up of one of those decadent discs. I just loved them. The thin outer crust was nice and crispy, but not overly crunchy, and the lahmacun dough got pleasantly soft underneath the cooked lamb and vegetables.
If you put a gun to my head (please don’t) and forced me to name my five favorite world cuisines (excluding regional American foods like barbecue, Jewish-style delicatessens, and Hawaiian), Turkish would definitely make my top five, along with Italian, Mexican, and probably Japanese and Cuban. That’s a hard decision to make. What about Indian? What about Chinese, in all its varieties? Greek? Vietnamese? I love them all, and so many more, but the local restaurants in Orlando made me a true devotee of Turkish flavors, and Zeytin reminded me what I love so much about them.
On top of that, I can’t get over how kind and sweet Michele was. I didn’t get to meet Chef Z, but he sounds like a pretty amazing person too. The fact that she reached out to me to invite me to their restaurant was such a nice gesture. I had been meaning to visit for far too long, but that personal touch is what finally made it happen. They hooked us up on that first takeout trip — I would be impugning whatever journalistic integrity I have if I failed to admit this — but they did it because they are such nice people, not asking for anything in return except for us to return. And it only took a week for us to do so, because it was that damn good.
Some Turkish restaurants may have expanded too much in recent years and aren’t as consistent (or as good) as they used to be. You may find others closed at random times throughout the week when they’re supposed to be open. But I can’t imagine Zeytin disappointing in any way, not after our recent experiences. All of their meats are halal, and everything is prepared from scratch — fresh produce, fresh everything. I am thrilled to consider myself a Zeytin convert now, and the next step is to become a regular. Please join me in doing the same!
So much of College Park has minimal parking (ironic), especially the stretch of Edgewater Drive closer to Princeton, but this is the north end of College Park, and Zeytin has its own parking lot. The restaurant is located at 4439 Edgewater Drive, just off Fairbanks Avenue, and very convenient to access via I-4. It is only open for dinner, and if you intend to dine in, definitely call 407-988-3330 to make a reservation. Plan your next date night or family dinner here. The extroverted, effervescent Michele and her husband, Chef Z, will make you feel like family, or probably even more welcome, depending on what your family is like.
I swore I wouldn’t end with this, but I can’t resist: HAIL ZEYTIN!