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Turkish-Californian Delight

When you think of Turkish food, kebabs and hummus likely come to mind. Troya may have started out as a kebab house, but as of 2008 this Inner Richmond gem has evolved into a well-rounded spot worthy of inclusion in the SF foodie pantheon. How? A new chef with a solid pedigree.

In March 2008, Troya brought in Chef Randy Gannaway, formerly of the acclaimed Aziza, The Girl and the Fig in Sonoma, and Carneros Bistro & Wine Bar at the Lodge in Sonoma. Gannaway has revitalized the two year-old restaurant by updating classic Turkish recipes using fresh local, organic and sustainable ingredients, though the menu does not shout this from the rooftops like most.

Patrons are making repeat visits for must-have dishes like succulent handmade manti ravioli ($13.50); Bloomsdale spinach-packed borek phyllo triangles with a creamy feta dip ($6.50); and bright, savory chicken güvec, an addictive tagine of crispy chicken legs, green olives, eggplant, almonds, parsnips and coriander ($14.50).

One mid-week evening, the neighborhood clientele streamed in, but never reached critical mass -- the city hasn't discovered this one yet. While we were disappointed that the 5-7pm $5 meze happy hour wasn't honored when we sat down at 6:55 and were ready to order by 7, we weren’t too dismayed, considering all the mezes range from $4-$7. However, we were put off by crumbs on our plate and table before we ate. Still, the staff are quite gracious and welcoming.

Dinner begins with bread and a gratis, 3-sectioned dish of olive oil, crushed pistachios, and ground sumac, then an amuse bouche. The meze selections are gratifying. Although opinions about the dolmas ($5.50) have been known to vary from the highest praise to indifference, they are formidable; grape leaves (not slimy!) are stuffed with braised lamb, pine nuts, and golden raisins -- and here's the key -- there's no bloated white rice, and no cloying, pickled flavor common to those inedible dolmas they sell at corner delis. Like the borek, these are special.

While fresh calamari ($7) might come off as odd, stuffed with a creamy, flavorful filling of spinach, eggplant and goat cheese then served on a well-dressed cannellini bean salad, it works beautifully if you can get it -- they were sold out on two other visits. The Mediterranean spreads ($14 for 3) are great for groups, with hummus, a yogurt dip dotted with tiny carrot slivers, and our favorite, a red pepper and walnut spread, all accompanied by warm pita bread.

Troya’s selection of mains is concise, with recognizable classics as well as surprises. The moussaka ($14), vegetarian on a recent evening, consisted of roasted eggplant, zucchini and tomatoes. While the vegetables were flavorful, it's not a true moussaka without béchamel -- it might as well have been called "a pot of roast vegetables." I’d be very curious to try the regular lamb version, which I’ve heard is divine.

We fared much better with the toothsome manti, a Turkish hand-rolled pasta that proves a good rival to the Italian ravioli. The dense pillows are filled with chanterelle mushrooms and drizzled over with a delicious yogurt sauce. I could eat this all day. More recently, friends report that the manti (actually handmade by an elder Turkish woman who comes in specifically for the task) have been filled with braised lamb. The result? They, too, would eat them all day.

The chicken and lamb kebabs ($15.50) could not be more exemplary. Both extremely tender and juicy, the lamb is sparred onto a skewer with eggplant, while the chicken with red peppers is paired with a chickpea-studded rice pilaf. The beyti ($15), a refined lamb wrap sliced into medallions and served over tomato with yogurt sauce, has promise, but ultimately doesn't hit the flavor marks of the other dishes, and seems more appropriate as an appetizer. The aforementioned chicken güvec, on the other hand, is a unique and unexpected inspiration, perfect for a chilly summer evening in San Francisco.

We found the kunefe ($5.50) dessert underwhelming. A block of fromage blanc is wrapped with kadayif (shredded phyllo dough) and baked, then sprinkled with almonds and a dash of homemade honey-lemon syrup, which sounds more luscious than it really is. There is no dominant flavor or texture, but rather, many mild ones that play nicely together but are not very interesting.

Bridget Cullen designed an enticing and fairly priced wine list to match the menu's Mediterranean flavors. Turkey makes wine. Who knew?

The Kavaklidere Cankaya ($28), made from the equally hard-to-pronounce Turkish grape Emir de Nevsehir, pairs beautifully with the food and reminded us of another coastal grape, the Italian vermentino. We continued with a Turkish red, the Yakut Kavaklidere ($28), made from another grape we’ve not heard of -- Okuzgozu d’Elazig -- equally interesting and similar to a light grenache.

The star of the wine list, however, is a second-label red by Gaston Hochar of the esteemed Chateau Musar in Lebanon ($43), a favorite among Napa's cult winemakers. Hochar employs rustic French winemaking techniques in his terroir in the Middle East, blending cinsault, cabernet, grenache and carignane to a rustic, refined effect; it's always exciting to find Musar on a wine list.

Troya seats 49 with an additional six seats at the brick bar, its dining room ably imparting casual sophistication while retaining a modest, neighborhood vibe. However, you can't help but wish for a set of booths to line the windows, to lend a more substantial feel to the room.

It will be interesting to keep tabs on Gannaway’s further renditions of traditional Turkish food, but so far, we like it. Troya is a great neighborhood dining experience at bargain prices, and it should not be missed.

Inner Richmond

Reservations Essential? No.