Bob Wilhelmy writes the Dining Out column for The American Israelite.

Outdoor signage at Café Mediterranean in Hyde Park

Café Mediterranean is offering a new item that goes perfectly well with its famed sampler, according to Fahri Ozdil, Turkish-born owner-operator and occasional chef of this venerable eatery on Erie Avenue in Hyde Park.

“This is our new balloon bread, and we are having a lot of people ordering the bread and liking it with our appetizer sampler; or just with the entrées they are ordering from the menu,” he said.

In foreground, the balloon bread made fresh to order, along with the flat-loaf bread now being offered at Café Mediterranean

Balloon bread has the look of a giant oval-shaped version of pita bread, albeit inflated. The difference is that this Middle Eastern specialty is festooned with sesame seeds, and coated with oil that gives it a lustrous sheen, adding to its appeal. The loaf when ballooned direct from the oven has a modified football shape, due to the steamy hot air that expands the “pocket” of the dough during its time in the oven. As the bread cools, the ballooning feature dissipates, and the bread deflates, making it easier to tear into the loaf and use the pieces to scoop up your choices from the appetizer sampler.

But in authentic Turkish restaurants and “fireside” eateries in the open air, this classic puff bread is eaten piping hot from the oven. According to sources on Middle East cuisine, this style of bread originated in Southeast Turkey dating back more than two thousand years ago. Just as a note of interest, the flatbread from which balloon bread springs has been part of the Middle Eastern scene for more than fourteen thousand years. Its probable origin was in the area of what is now modern-day Jordan.

In Turkey, this style of bread is called lavas, and it is described as thin and crispy. The hollow center is filled with steam from the baking process. Devotees to Turkish cuisine use the bread as a scoop for whatever they may be eating. That is why balloon bread is an ideal accompaniment for the Café’s sampler. But in Turkish circles, the bread is even more likely to be used in meals featuring kebabs. Also, Turks often eat balloon bread as a snack with goat cheese, or unsalted butter, or a spicy crush of tomatoes and peppers (called ezme). When Jewish diners-out order this remarkable loaf at Café Mediterranean, they will be enjoying a signature bread of Middle Eastern origin that is uniquely tied to the cuisine of that area.

For my money, a loaf of balloon bread makes the special appetizer sampler even more special. Part of the fun of eating ethnic foods is enjoying them as they would be eaten by the cultures that produced them. So, tear off a piece and scoop into the baba ghanoush or the lavna.

The appetizer sampler, featuring six of the most popular items

On the sampler pictured, there are a variety of Turkish treats that are looked upon as appetizers to a meal, or as a light meal, depending on the diners. A brief rundown of the items on the sampler plate gives one the sense of the variety found in Turkish cuisine. “In fact, this is why the Turkish cuisine, it is the hardest cuisine in the world,” Ozdil claimed. He says that there are so many recipes and so many variations that choosing favorites is an impossible task. He mentioned that there are more than 600 recipes for eggplant dishes as an example of the extensiveness of the cuisine. So, he sticks with proven recipes that he knows his patrons appreciate, and occasionally adds something new. “We did that with the Turkish pizza a while back and we are doing it again with our most popular balloon bread.”

My favorites on the sampler are the lavna, the hummus, the baba ghanoush, the roasted eggplant and tomato, and the stuffed grape leaves. All are winners; all are Turkish superstar appetizers. Also, all are made in the Turkish style, according to Ozdil. He imports much of what he serves to his patrons, especially in seasonings. “Yes, ninety percent (of the herbs and spices) from Turkey because the food, it makes much better in flavor, much better! The herbs and spices (of Turkey) are more potent in flavor. Oregano is the main herb, in Turkey oregano we put it in everything. But rosemary, cinnamon, allspice, cumin—around 20 fresh and dried herbs and the flavor you are not getting anywhere like it is here. The people, they are loving it, and some (of our patrons) they come only for that dish (meaning whatever their personal favorite might be) because it is so good,” he said, adding that many guests have visited Turkey and recognize the quality and authenticity of Café Mediterranean’s menu.

See you at Café Mediterranean!