The classy kebab house in Graduate Hospital serves the best falafel and $3 drinks.
The dinner hour was slipping away, and I needed somewhere to eat.
Plan A had been Thoreau, the high-minded vegetarian place on Spring Garden that threw a royal wrench in the works by announcing its closing that same day.
Plan B: Noble, for barkeep Christian Gaal’s happy hour and snacks from new chef Brinn Sinnot. But about 794 people had the same idea. I stood on the Sansom Street sidewalk, hunched over a yellow PW box (poetically, perhaps), gripping my iPhone like a life preserver in a tide of disorderly Penn seniors on Walnut Walk, sweating.
Where to eat ...
Where to eat ...
Where to eat ...
Three or so hours of indecision later, I remembered Divan, the classy kebab house on the corner of 22nd and Carpenter. I’d passed it earlier that day, as I’d done so many times in its four years of existence. It’s one of those places I’m always meaning to get to.
If you live in the neighborhood, chances are you know Divan. If not, maybe you’ve seen one of its TV spots, which is as homemade as the stuffed grape leaves, but a Clio winner compared to production efforts by other local businesses. In lieu of talking penguins and riffs on the Budweiser “wassup” campaign, Divan entices viewers with shots of its fetching brick exterior ringed in clean black awnings and sidewalk seats, doner kebab being expertly carved and of course its proprietor, Ilker Ugur, whose saturnine good looks have earned him plenty of fans (my mom among them). Ugur, a native of Istanbul, delivers the commercial’s kicker with serious conviction and a bit of braggadocio: “Come discover why Turkish food isn’t one of the best cuisines in the world. It is the best food in the world.”
Confidence, apparently, is not in short supply at Divan.
Pita, though, that’s another case. A solitary, lightly grilled triangle came cocked like a funny hat atop the mixed, hot-appetizer plate, a starter that could feed four, featuring, in ascending order of greatness: A tasty but wet spinach pie a bit like leaves after a rainstorm; sauteed baby shrimp with tiny mushrooms; flaky, feta-filled phyllo cigars; featherweight fried calamari; fried nuggets of calf’s liver dusted with citrusy sumac; and the best falafel I’ve ever come across in Philly. There was nice hummus, too, with the whipped texture of chocolate mousse, but no pita with which to scoop it up.
We asked for more, but our likable waiter forgot. No hard feelings, though: Dude was kept busy by a large party that had come in expressly to plunder Divan’s liquor cabinet at $3 a drink, a yes-you-heard-that-right special in effect all day, every day. There’s also a seven-days-a-week happy hour that’ll net you 30 percent off your entire bill if you dine before 5 p.m.
But where Divan giveth, Divan taketh away. There’s a corkage policy on Friday and Saturday if you want to BYO, which is reasonable, and in the style of Jersey’s finest gas stations, a 10 percent surcharge if you’re paying with a credit card, which is not. All the wheelin’ and dealin’ distracts from Divan’s main selling point: the food, which is honest-to-goodness good.
Chef Sadi Cetiner is particularly gifted in the meat department. Piled over a hill of fluffy rice, the shavings of spit-roasted doner were dry, but all other selections carnivorous blew me away. You could drown in the meaty juices locked inside the shish kebab’s smoky, skewer-grilled cubes of chicken and lamb. The lamb adana kebabs massaged with Turkish pepper paste delivered the same tender experience, accented with a glimmer of heat, and beef joined the fray in the succulent, savory kofte, mint-flecked patties of ground beef and lamb. (Could you imagine them on a burger bun? Delicious sacrilege!) The meatless manti, dainty dumplings filled with buttons of spinach and cloaked in garlicky strained yogurt, were equally flavorful and pacified the vegetarian at a table stacked with skewered meats.
The food ascends from the basement on a nifty old dumbwaiter, but the desserts might as well come down from heaven. I sank into the crock of smooth rice pudding crossed with crushed pistachios. The kazandibi, the Turkish “bottom of the pot” custard, was like creme brulee crossed with Rice Krispie Treats cereal, a very good thing in my book, an ending to a Plan C I’d be happy to make Plan A any day of the week.
For more on Philly's food scene, visit blogalicious-adam.blogspot.com.
918 S. 22nd St. 215.545.5790.
Hours: Lunch and dinner daily, noon-11pm.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014