Gonuls J Street Cafe
3839 J Street
Gonuls is a little cafe located on J Street, kitty-cornered in next to a Starbucks and an upscale day spa. (This means parking is an exciting adventure.)
Upon my first, halting impression, the interior reminded me somewhat of an office - beige and adorned with inoffensive paintings of Tuscan landscapes, along with jars and dishes of the proprietors jams and jellies (and little fake plants.) Despite the somewhat off-putting emptiness of the restaurant, a very good three piece jazz band was playing, and we enjoyed listening to them as we were seated and presented with a large basket of somewhat hard foccacia bread, presented with the requisite olive oil n' vinegar.
The menu is Turkish with a few Mediterranean specialties - think hummus, lentil soup, stuffed peppers, and lamb dishes. However, more familiar Continental specialties are also in evidence, including pastas , shrimp and pizzas - yuppie chow fans, you are presented with an embarrassment of riches. In keeping with California's sense of self-rightneous, there's an emphasis on organic ingredients (to be commended.) Don't expect any bargains: prices are moderate but not cheap. Gonul's obviously has ambitions slightly beyond those of a run of the mill neighborhood cafe.
I felt like I should at least try to adhere to the place's Turkish theme, and went with the Turkish-style red snapper, served over eggplant and rice, with a sauce of thyme, tomatoes, olives, and capers ($17.00). The sauce was quite tasty, but the rest of the dish wasn't nearly as successful - the fish was slightly mushy and tasted pre-frozen, more like cod then a nice piece of snapper (color me suspicious.) The flavor of the sauce was good enough, but the rice had congealed into a rather gloppy mess, and I didn't eat much of it. It overall felt like more of a home-made thrown together presentation then a composed and professional restaurant dish...and certainly not worth 17 bucks.
My mom went with the curried lentil soup ($6.00 a bowl), which was tasty enough, although the curry flavor could have been more pronounced. It did have a nice tang from the included yogurt. She also tried a house salad, which was pleasant enough - composed of organic field greens, feta cheese, and walnuts with a light oil and vinegar dressing..
My dad tried the red lentil soup with tomato, shallot, and lemon ($6.00). This was quite tasty, and the fresh spinach it was topped with added an agreeable touch of green - although we experienced a somewhat embarrassing moment where we were unable to discern the curry lentil soup from the red lentil soup by flavor alone.
He moved on to the stuffed pepper appetizer with beef, lamb and rice ($8.50), which was certainly rather gigantic, although I was unimpressed with the flavor - again, that gloppy rice made a reappearance, and the meat was not much in evidence, although the sauce covering it was rather tasty. Gonuls apparantly has a "glop" problem when it comes to presentation, as is evidenced by my photograph. Not that glop can't be tasty, but I don't love looking at it either.
We passed on dessert, but I snuck a look at the menu on the way out and it seemed impressive - I might return just to try the key lime pie, which is somewhat akin to crack in my book.
Service was slow and disjointed. Gonul's service style felt homey but not in the good way - with long, indeterminable waits to have our order taken and for various courses to arrive. Combined with the office like feel of the dining room, the entire experience didn't quite feel like that of a polished restaurant, although the jazz band did help loosen things up a little. I'd certainly budget some time if you're planning to eat here - the confused service means an in and out sort of dinner probably isn't in the cards.
Would I return to Gonuls?
The menu is interesting enough, and I like the emphasis on fresh ingredients (though they should really apply that to the fish.) Prices do need to be drawn down considerably, as the food is by no means sophisticated enough or polished enough to justify that sort of premium. They're trying to play the role of a cute and excellent neighborhood cafe with an out of the ordinary menu..they're just not entirely succeeding.