Running a successful restaurant has always been tough, but even more so now in this post-pandemic era of rising prices, supply chain issues, a tight labor market and more frugal customers. What a relief, then, to speak with the joyful Ayse “Bonnie” Ozturk, owner of Lale Turkish Cuisine on South Park Avenue. She outright percolates with joy.
“Every time I make a hummus or baklava, I put love into it,” Ozturk says. “I love what I do, and people can tell my food is made with love and enthusiasm.”
Ozturk’s excitement is notable because she’s more accustomed to creating and operating restaurants than cooking for them. In fact, she co-founded Bosphorous, the popular Turkish eatery on Park Avenue, in 2004 and sold the operation in 2009. It’s now a small chain with five locations.
She later ran Istanbul Turkish Cuisine and then the first Lale Turkish Cuisine, both in the same Lake Mary location. The pandemic doomed that more recent venture, a 3,000-square-foot expanse that suddenly found itself empty.
In those years, Ozturk was on the dining room floor day and night while someone else puréed the chickpeas and skewered the kebabs. For the new incarnation of Lale, which opened in the summer of 2021, she began cooking because she couldn’t find anyone else whose cuisine she considered better than ordinary.
Now Ozturk is sold on kitchen duty. “I’m proud of what I make,” she says. “It makes me want to do more, do better. I look forward to coming in every morning. I cannot wait to get to my restaurant and start prepping my baba ganoush, my hummus, my ezme. I actually get excited.”
Lale — the name means “tulip” — is a slim little storefront nearly hidden in plain sight. Its few tables take up a narrow spot near where Park and Fairbanks Avenues meet, barely noticeable among the strip’s more brightly lit establishments.
I’m in the area frequently, yet only discovered this tiny treasure while killing time waiting for my reservation at a competitor across the street. Apparently, however, many locals have keener eyesight, or a better gossip network, than I do.
During our recent two-hour visit, parties of two to four steadily drifted in, taking up seats indoors and along the sidewalk. Many seemed as if they knew the servers — both of whom are from Turkey — and made themselves right at home.
That’s easy to do when the service is so warm and the details are so thoughtfully attended to. Aware that three of us were sharing, for example, our four-dip appetizer came with four spoons. No big deal, perhaps, but such little things make an impression.
So equipped, we could easily all enjoy the hearty hummus, smoky baba ganoush, veggie-loaded tabbouleh and sweet ezme — chilled diced vegetables with pomegranate dressing. Piping hot lavash bread filled with steam and topped with black sesame seeds arrived at about the same time, which is crucial for this combo.
If those foods sound familiar, it’s because they’re staples at Turkish restaurants, at least here in Central Florida. Indeed, Ozturk proudly states that Lale has the same menu as its predecessors, minus a few slow sellers such as zucchini pancakes.
If you’ve dined with Ozturk before, you might remember the lamb shank. Here, it’s a fork-tender leg bathed in a rich red sauce. By the time it arrives at your table, the meat will have simmered for several hours with tomato juice, potatoes and sweet discs of carrot. That lamb, that gravy and a scoop of jasmine rice mixed with orzo make for a satisfying Mediterranean-style dinner.
Our servers urged my group to try the chicken Adana, explaining that a new chef had elevated the spice-infused chicken kebabs. That chef, who hails from Turkey and now assists Ozturk, convinced his boss to swap in dark meat for white.
The result is more tender and more flavorful. So much so, in fact, that the kebabs were a highlight of our dinner, with flavors and textures from red bell pepper, bread crumbs, paprika and a tomato paste from Turkey.
The spinach pide (flatbread) was the meal’s one weak link. A train-shaped oblong pocket was filled with sautéed spinach, flavored with that same Turkish tomato paste, plus red pepper and onions. Crumbled feta cheese on top added a creamy tang but the overall flavor was sour, somehow. My crew would not order that a second time.
Lale offers two desserts, and Ozturk makes them both. All you need to know is they’re quite different from one another, and both are a treat. The kunefe is a disc-shaped pastry with a base of shredded wheat. It’s served warm, with a gooey, stringy center of sweet melted cheese that sits atop a sauce of buttery grape molasses. The other dessert, triangles of baklava, is flaky from phyllo dough, filled with crushed walnuts and doused in honey — yet not off-puttingly sweet as, some versions are.
Add a Turkish coffee and you’ll be transported to Bolu, the mountainous province in northwestern Turkey and Ozturk’s birthplace. Located in northwestern Turkey, Bolu is renowned for its hot springs and fine chefs. Ozturk’s father was a chef, as was her ex-husband, who was her partner in the original Bosphorous.
Wouldn’t Ozturk like to grow the business and find more spacious digs? Maybe, she says, but a calm, intimate place is just right for the time being. “I was looking for something small, just to be on the safe side,” she adds. “But you never know.”
Fair enough. But if more people like me stumble onto this lovely little place, the decision to expand may become easier to make. Anyway, there’s never anything safe about being in the restaurant business.
Lale Turkish Cuisine
521 South Park Avenue, Winter Park
407-333-0033 • laleturkishcuisine.com