Sahara’s Turkish Cuisine


In Murray Hill at 513 2nd Avenue at 28th Street.

Open on weekdays from 12:00 PM – 10:30 PM, and on weekends from 12:00 PM to 11:00 PM.

For reservations and private parties, call 212-532-7589 or visit Sahara Turkish Cuisine on the web at


Turkish Delights at Murray Hill’s Sahara

By Nancy Walman


With a recently remodeled space featuring French doors, restored brick, and select Turkish pin-dot tables, the atmosphere at Sahara is eclectically European and chic. But considering the popularity of their catering program throughout hospitals and doctors’ offices in the tri-state area (ranging from Cornell to Hackensack to the Bronx), it is evident that the flavors and health benefits of Sahara’s food shine with or without the pleasant surroundings.

Countless books and studies have proved that eating a “Mediterranean Diet” is a healthy approach to cutting calories, maintaining heart health, and increasing vitality. That’s why Chef Sinan Ön of Sahara’s Turkish Cuisine places emphasis on the vibrant flavors, modern presentations, and affordable prices that make the Mediterranean Diet more accessible and enjoyable than ever.

This healthful approach begins with owner Michael Kocak, whose extensive experience with Turkish cooking has helped him create a refined and wholesome vision for Sahara. From a small doner kebab take-out spot to Midtown lunch hotspot, Kocak has owned and run various kinds of Turkish restaurants over the years-and frequented many more. With this experience under his belt, he acknowledges that most Turkish restaurants boil down to the same menu. What changes, he says, is the style of the chef and the signature touches he can put on those traditional items.

At Sahara, this translates to high nutritional value, largely thanks to Chef Ön and his innovative, modern style. With his formative training in the prestigious culinary city of Bolu, Turkey, and early exposure to the industry from his father (a successful chef himself), Chef Ön worked at many of Turkey’s most acclaimed restaurants before making his move to New York 11 years ago. Upon his arrival he took up post at the famed Turkish Kitchen, where he fine-tuned his flair for modern Turkish cuisine and learned to cater to New York’s refined palette.


The menu at Sahara is straightforward and easy to navigate, and its dishes deliver one pleasant surprise after another. Traditional cold appetizers like Yaprak Sarma (Stuffed Grape Leaves) take refreshing spins-the leaves are purchased fresh and cured in-house, replacing the usual acidic slimy quality of the wrapping with a subtly sweet flavor that’s far more enjoyable. Lebni, or thick homemade yogurt, is freckled with garlic, dill, and the slight crunch of crushed walnuts, creating a mélange of flavors that’s as nutritionally beneficial as it is satisfying. Salads at Sahara (salatasi, in Turkish) are large and delightful, replacing calorie-loaded dressings with lemon juice, olive oil, and the optional (but irresistible) hint of shredded feta.

Hot appetizers provide a bit of indulgence. Icli Kofte, a standard Turkish dish, is taken to the next level: the ground lamb mixture is accented with currants and crushed walnuts before being stuffed into a perfectly crispy crust of lightly fried bulgur wheat. Mucver, or Zucchini Pancakes, are airy and served piping hot with cool yogurt sauce, a beautiful blend of earthy vegetable flavors and vibrant punches of paprika.

Chef Ön’s talents are best revealed with the signature marinades he uses for his Kebabs. In particular, his Shish Kebab and Tavuk Sis (Chicken Kebab) are popular for the unique blend of secret spices that Chef Ön uses to achieve a perfect flavor and texture. Ezmeli Kebab, a dish of chopped lamb atop a bed of spicy, smoked eggplant, presents familiar but elegantly layered flavors. Kebabs are supplemented with a variety of seafood dishes such as Karides Guvec, an oven-baked shrimp casserole with mushrooms, peppers and tomatoes, all topped with Tukish Kashar cheese. All meat and fish dishes are char grilled without a single drop of butter, and even the “rice”-actually a creamy blend of bulgur wheat, minced vegetables and dill-sheds its unhealthy reputation.

A highly affordable wine list makes it possible to enjoy the meal with a heart-healthy glass of red wine without breaking the bank. Bottles begin at just $24 and a rotating selection of about ten wines (both red and white) are always available at $7-8 per glass.

To accommodate his loyal regulars and Turkish food aficionados, Chef Ön is happy to take requests off the menu. Regular requests include “finger meatballs,” a playfully named dish of oblong meatballs in a Turkish variation of marinara sauce, and spicy shrimp and peppers with olive oil and garlic. Rotating specials like boneless Cornish hen stuffed with cinnamon-scented rice, currants and pine nuts keep the menu constantly changing and brimming with surprises. Always keen to continue evolving his food to meet higher and higher standards, he welcomes the opportunity to step outside of his comfort zone, experimenting with new desserts and sending them to patrons complimentary for their honest evaluations.

Among the most successful desserts are Chef Ön’s baklava, deeply sweet but flaky and airy rather than dense and brick-like. Similarly, Kazandibi, akin to a Turkish crème brulee, is a truly unique milk custard that is caramelized to achieve a melt-in-your-mouth texture. Enjoyed with Turkish tea or a raki cordial, these make a wonderful ending to the meal.

Copyright 2009 By Punchin International. All Rights Reserved.