Review: Cafe Agora

“How did you hear about us?” Al Ozelci demands the first time I visit Café Agora. It’s a rainy Sunday evening, and I’m unsure about how this particular restaurant works. When I walk in, no one greets me, tells me where to sit, or offers a menu. Ozelci is rushing around behind the counter — a one-man front-of-house, with one cook in back. When I approach him to find out what to do, Ozelci peppers me with questions.

“What kind of food you like? This kind of food?” He gestures to a case filled with a rainbow of salads, dips and other Middle Eastern cold specialties.

“I like all food,” I say.

“Fine. Take a seat. I’ll bring you something.”

A minute later, he arrives at the table, a plate in hand laden with stuff from the case. He places the plate on the table, and after taking a quick minute to do a magic trick for my son (an impressive disappearing-mint act), he begins to pick up small squares of pita and load them with tastes from the plate. An outrageously thick tzatziki, the yogurt shot through with dill, is smooshed with a roasted eggplant. And then Ozelci feeds me the square of pita. “You’ll like this,” he says, watching my reaction.

I do, indeed, like this.

I like the rickety tables and the stucco white and gold painted walls. I like the jumble of liquor bottles behind the counter and the lopsided sign on the door that says, “We now serve ALCOHOL!” (Even though, because of the lack of menus, there’s no way to really know what alcohol is served.)  And man, I really like this carrot salad, sopping with carrot juice and a hint of yogurt, almost startlingly sweet but tempered with acid and dill.

My sister isn’t so sure. “That was really good,” she says after Ozelci feeds her his tzatziki and eggplant pita bite. “And I don’t even like eggplant.” But once he’s left us to fend for ourselves with the rest of the mezze plate, she says, “People are going to be bugged about him feeding them.”

“Whatever,” I say. “They can go somewhere else. This guy is taking service to a whole new level.”

After a gyro arrives in front of her, Ozelci unwrapping the sandwich’s foil a little and presenting it with a flourish like a bouquet, she forgets her earlier apprehension. The sandwich is bursting with meat, with just the right ratio of crunchy lettuce and creamy tzatziki.

Meanwhile, I devour a plate of lamb shish kebab, the meat so tender, so redolent of lemony marinade and char from the grill, nestled alongside a Greek salad filled with chunks of sweet, flavorful (room temperature!) tomatoes.

And so it goes — people wander in out of the rain, stand around looking confused, Ozelci finally gets to them and overpowers them with the force of his personality and passion, and then wins them over with plates of delicious, cheap food. Practically everyone gets a mezze plate, whether purposely ordered or not. At one point in the evening, Ozelci gets swamped, serving five tables at once (one of them a 10-top), and stops delivering food to the tables — instead leaving the plates on the counter and gesturing to the table they're intended for.

No one seems to mind having to get up and gather the food themselves. (Who would, when the payoff is a warm adana kebab, ground lamb meat seasoned, skewered and grilled to juicy, savory perfection? The dish originates in Ozelci’s native Turkey, and you can taste the love and heritage.) It’s a collaborative process, as close to eating in someone’s home as you’re likely to get in a restaurant.

When I get up to pay, Ozelci is standing over the 10-top finding out where each person at the table is from. He gestures wildly, discussing Texas and the various places of employment of his customers. I wait for at least five minutes while he chats. When he finally comes to collect my money, he says, “I’m sorry. I had to talk to them — they are from Texas! I had to get to know them. They are my customers. I looooove them! Every single one. That’s why I do this. Because I love them.”

I forgive him, and after I’ve paid, he cuts a piece of melting, crackly, nutty and sweet baklava — and feeds it to me with a plastic fork.