Just above the soup tureens situated toward the front of the buffet line at Istanbul Shish Kabob, there’s a sign roughly the size of the Mona Lisa. And at least in this context, it’s just as important: “Please eat as much as you can but do not waste!” it reads in all caps. “Thanks!”
Alongside the message, a happy face wears an unambiguous smile that stretches up to its eyeballs.
That pretty well sums up Istanbul Shish Kabob and Kairos Greek Kitchen, two new additions to the Charleston area casual dining roster. The unrelated restaurants, both of which serve terrific Mediterranean food at prices that won’t dent the shopping budgets of customers headed to the malls next door, are sensible and cheery to the core.
In both cases, the restaurants represent successful second acts. John Ondo of Kairos spent just over a decade at Lana on the corner of Cannon and Rutledge streets before deciding to trade the long hours and crushing headaches of downtown fine dining for healthy food and plenty of parking. Emad Hammad and Gheath Dahat of Istanbul Shish Kabob also switched up formats once they realized customers were chafing at the traditional menu at their first Istanbul Shish Kabob, a sit-down restaurant located in the former Huddle House at the foot of the Ravenel Bridge.
“People are asking in the other restaurant, ‘I want to try; I want to try,’” Hammad says. “You cannot order all those sides! We make it open buffet for this reason.”
At Istanbul Shish Kabob, $9.99 buys an all-access pass to a spread of dips and dishes so bountiful that I had to go through the L-shaped line four times to try everything; after lunch, the price increases to $13.99. The highest price for a single item at Kairos, which is structured exactly like Chipotle, is $9.28, regardless of the hour.
Clearly, the jubilant soundtrack of mizmar music at Istanbul Shish Kabob would be warranted even if the food was just OK. But at both Istanbul and Kairos, there’s a tremendous amount of deliciousness for the taking.
Kairos Greek Kitchen
A few items on the Kairos menu board made the trip directly from Lana with Ondo. Most notably, there’s been no change to crisped hand-cut fries that taste as though someone reverse-engineered McDonald’s original inspiration. The tangy red pepper feta also is back for an encore. Lately, though, Ondo says he’s shaking off small restaurant habits and embracing high-volume cooking.
Rather than make a sauce four times a week, Ondo decided to quintuple the recipe, calling for 20 cups of onions instead of four. The strategy works because the preparations are canonically simple. Dishes such as baba ghanoush have been produced in massive quantities for almost as long as humans have had reason to invite friends over for a little nosh.
Still, Kairos nails the ratios. (Speaking of geometry, it’s worth mentioning that the restaurant isn’t as Greek as its full name claims: The spirit’s on point, but you can get falafel in your rice bowl or harissa on your pita.) The hummus has the right smack of garlic, and the tzatziki has just enough salt to pull its cucumber flavor forward.
Yet the kitchen’s hand is frequently invisible. For every fleecy, turmeric-tinted falafel ball featuring a complex blend of cumin, cayenne and coriander, there are another three or four menu items that are just plain sliced vegetables, or a combination thereof. Sounds easy enough, except the freshness and consistent cuts are a reminder of how many ways higher-priced restaurants find to screw up a red onion.
Freshness is particularly apparent in salads such as the tabbouli, dominated by vivid parsley; and cucumber salad, scattered with dill. Ingredients that aren’t fresh by design, such as Kalamata olives and chickpeas, are taut and full-bodied.
As for how all of these components come together, that’s entirely up to the customer. The critical choices are falafel, chicken, meatballs or slow-roasted lamb leg, and sandwich, green salad or white rice bowl. I’d put the chicken and sandwich lower on the consideration list, since the chicken’s slightly dry and the pita isn’t astounding, but that’s about all the guidance I can offer. I’m pretty happy eating lamb with pepperoncinis and tahini, but you might swing for saucy meatballs with feta cheese. You can always mix it up on your next visit.
Istanbul Shish Kebob
Another commonality between Kairos and Istanbul Shish Kebob is an imprecise name: Although there are a few distinctly Turkish dishes at the end of the Istanbul buffet line, Hammad and Dahat have assembled the greatest hits of Middle Eastern cuisine.
“Like, I’m mixed,” Hammad says. “My father is from Jerusalem, my mother is Turkish, and I was born and raised in Jordan. So we grab the best from every country.”
Istanbul’s standout item is one that’s shared by all of them. Hammad claims the restaurant is producing the only scratch-made pita bread in South Carolina, which may not be strictly true, but after trying Istanbul’s version, you’re not likely to look for a rendition elsewhere. The attractively puffed, oblong bread is fed through a conveyor toaster, which deposits the warmed loaves into a wicker basket lined with a floral dishtowel.
It’s a rare homey touch in a restaurant that looks like what might pop up as “modern” in an online quiz to test design preferences: The cement floor gleams, the walls are painted red and the seating is upholstered in near-neon orange and green. The service, though, is intensely personable.
“I think like 90 percent of people recognize all the dishes, but we say, ‘Are you first time here? Are you familiar with this?’” Hammad says. “If they say no, one of us walks the buffet with them.”
A few of the best items aren’t kept on the buffet: Kabobs are delivered directly to the table from the grill, and arrive still bearing smoky hickeys of char. The chicken is best as a vehicle for Istanbul’s superlative garlic sauce, but the kofta with seasonings drawn from the heart of the order of a Levantine spice rack has flavor to spare. Even better is the juicy chicken shawarma, tucked into pita and smeared with garlic sauce. “People are addicted,” Hammad says.
Weirdly, the seasoning is less certain on dishes emblematic of Turkish cooking, such as fasulye, or tomato-sauced green beans. It’s overshadowed by soft basmati rice with separated grains and a yellow hue derived from saffron. But clunkers are rare along the line, which stretches from hearty lentil soup to grilled chicken blushing with sumac. Make sure to stop for the muhammara, ful medames, tahini and fried potatoes.
According to Hammad, Istanbul serves kanafeh, but I didn’t see any dessert on either of my visits. That’s fine, though, as I fear customers would be inclined to save room for it. Better to do as the sign commands and eat as much as you can.