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REVIEW | Istanbul Grill & Bakery 

Published on June 11, 2024 at 11:40 am

To drive for a food delivery app is to ferry samosas. Earl Walton of St. Johns has never been foolish enough to count how many times he’s checked his phone screen against a receipt stapled to a takeout bag and walked out of the restaurant with boxed-up deep fried snacks.

But on a recent Thursday morning, Walton pauses after snagging an order of vegan samosas and garlic naan from the Pakistani lunch counter at Apna Bazar on Beach Boulevard. That stall occupies approximately one-fifth of the linear food court at the rear of the building, past the entrance to a quick-service health clinic, past retail showcases stocked with gold jewelry and phone accessories, past an oven pumping out Afghan flatbread. The rest of the dazzling backroom belongs to Istanbul Grill & Bakery, which turned up in the space last fall, following a three-year run down the street as Bakkal International Foods.

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While its name suggests that Istanbul is conversant in both savory and sweet, that bipartisanship doesn’t do justice to the operation’s breadth. Like many a first-timer, Walton gapes at the gleaming battery of pastry displays, ranging from a medley of baklavas to Napoleons bulging with cream to multilayer cakes, burnished Turkish coffee kettles, and shawarma on poky vertical spits.  

Walton knows right away he isn’t leaving with just somebody else’s samosas.

Earl Walton arrived as a delivery driver and left as a customer himself | Hanna Raskin

“This is a really good-looking place,” he tells me. “It’s awesome looking. I want to buy a whole bunch of stuff.”

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Typically a cheesecake guy, Walton settles on an éclair after consultation with an employee who comes around the counter to serve as his personal pastry tour guide. With the lunch rush still an hour or two away, it’s a good time to pay a visit to Istanbul Grill & Bakery.

Istanbul Grill & Bakery is in My JAX Plaza, near the intersection of Beach Boulevard and St. Johns Bluff Road South. | Hanna Raskin

In fact, it’s the best time, although Walton has no way of knowing it. Working as a delivery driver is an ideal way to discover restaurants located far beyond your residential neighborhood or social circle, but it’s not compatible with traveling in a group. And to fully appreciate Istanbul at breakfast, when its riches are flaunted most conspicuously, it’s advisable to arrive in the company of several dining accomplices.

Istanbul Grill & Bakery doesn’t get credit for inducing area eaters to try an Anatolian start to their days.

Mervan Kigzin’s Penman Diner in Jacksonville Beach offers an estimable Mediterranean platter, featuring salty cubes of feta cheese jostling with slim kalamata olives along the rim of a dish dominated by a butter-buzzed scramble of eggs and rough-hewn Turkish sausage. It’s delicious, but if there’s any question that the elements are a distillation of their overseas inspiration, the plate and accompanying triangles of pita bread are set beneath a small American flag planted in the tabletop condiment caddy (at least, that was the décor in the weeks leading up to Memorial Day.)

Penman Diner in Jacksonville Beach offers an estimable Mediterranean platter, but it’s a more Western take than Istanbul Grill’s | Hanna Raskin

By contrast, the default breakfast plate at Istanbul Grill & Bakery is populated by elements that align with Eastern expectations, including lushly pliant clotted cream and honey, roasted red peppers, and spicy tomato relish, as well as cheese and olives. The eggs and accouterments are served with a glass of wonderfully robust Turkish tea, as red and fragrant as cedarwood.

What most of the extras have in common, whether singing backup for scrambled eggs, fried eggs, or an omelet, is they’re made to spread. That’s a nudge to consider Istanbul Grill & Bakery’s brick oven, and the breads that emerge from it. 

Turkish coffee at Istanbul Grill | Hanna Raskin

Among them is lahmacun, sometimes unfairly dismissed as “Turkish pizza.” Like Italian pizza and its derivatives, lahmacun is roundish and topped. But the same could be said of a police officer’s head, so that comparison gets the uninitiated nowhere. More useful when approaching lahmacun, particularly one as confidently executed as Istanbul Grill & Bakery’s version, is a lemon wedge. Just a spritz is sufficient to arouse herbs woven into the meat, peppered and minced with equal intensity, then spread thinly over cracker-crisp crust.

Because lahmacun is so singular, it’s a shoo-in for most-popular menu item almost anywhere it’s served. At Istanbul Grill & Bakery, it’s well on its way to gaining signature dish status, although the eggs-and-sausage crowd could make a strong case for breakfast pide to assume that mantle.

Pide is another iconic flatbread that gets stuck with the “Turkish pizza” label, since pie-loving Americans are apparently forever on the lookout for their favorite food. In this case, the parallel is melted cheese. (On the other side of the Turkish-Georgian border, the rowboat-shaped pastry is known as khachapuri.) 

Pide at Istanbul Grill with egg and sausage | Hanna Raskin

At Istanbul Grill & Bakery, the breakfast pide’s tangy cheese is accented with egg and slips of sucuk, the dried Turkish sausage that exalts garlic and fat. Still, it’s the bread frame that commands attention. Soft within and gently sour, the warm bread—alluringly charred on its utmost edge—is exceptional.

Even more memorable is what Istanbul Grill & Bakery sells as a tahini pie, which is a wheel of airy dough smeared with sesame paste and sliced like (sorry) pizza. Drizzled with honey and chopped pistachios, the pie tastes like a carb-heavy halva, with a central dollop of cheese curds to offset its sweetness. With its swollen crust and dense topping, the pie’s a treat for multiple people.

Istanbul Grill’s tahini pie is sweet and savory | Hanna Raskin

Really, though, if your dining party couldn’t be described as intimate, you ought to order the Village Style Breakfast. While the name was probably chosen to reflect its rusticity, it also alludes to how many eaters it might feed. For $49, the table’s transformed into a riotous buffet of satisfyingly earthy flavors in the form of rigid green olives, salty black olives, diced cucumbers, chopped tomatoes, hunks of fresh cheese, ribbons of roasted red peppers, sliced sausage, garlic sauce, parsley dip, chili paste, molasses, honey, and jam, each component meriting its own stark white plate or saucer. Feasting upon the array feels like plunging headfirst into a history of the Western world, replete with prized spices, ancient fruits, and bread baked in heat stoked by wood.

Istanbul Grill’s village style breakfast | Hanna Raskin

Like Walton, the food delivery driver I met at Istanbul Grill & Bakery, I first went to the restaurant alone and on assignment. But I was able to experience the Village Style Breakfast because a septet of Iraqi-born cousins sitting at a table near mine invited me to join them. As we dabbed at spreads with torn pieces of pide, and ate cured meats with our fingers, we talked about tea and trucking and camping trips. It was a magnificent meal—and perhaps just a taste of the unexpected magic that this place seems destined to inspire.

Istanbul Grill & Bakery | 11173 Beach Blvd. | 904-677-4908 | istanbuljax.com | Monday-Thursday: 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday-Saturday: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday: Closed. 

This review is published under a partnership with The Food Section.

author image Contributor Hanna Raskin is editor and publisher of The Food Section, a James Beard award-winning newsletter covering food and drink across the American South. Raskin previously served as food editor and chief critic for The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina.
author image Contributor Hanna Raskin is editor and publisher of The Food Section, a James Beard award-winning newsletter covering food and drink across the American South. Raskin previously served as food editor and chief critic for The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina.

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