These are the scenes and scents at Red Meze, a new Turkish restaurant in downtown Johnson City.
Red Meze isn’t technically new, but the name is, and the location is. The business had operated for about 10 years as Mediterranean Garden in the Burlington building off West Walnut Street in Johnson City. The new location, under the new name, is on Buffalo Street.
With exposed brick walls that hold tiles, copper platters, bowls, dolls, and other pieces of colorful art, it is one of the most attractive restaurants in the Tri-Cities region.
Red Meze is owned and operated by an enterprising young Turkish couple, Bulent and Sengul Yaman. They’ve combined his experience working in the granite and countertop business with her knowledge from employment as a cashier at a Turkish restaurant in Arlington, Virginia, and they’ve blended in culinary skills remembered from their mothers back home.
The menu is varied, but on every visit, we go for the Turkish fare, beginning, each time, with an appetizer of roasted eggplant served with tomato and yogurt sauce and often a plate of stuffed grape leaves. In fact, “meze” means appetizer in Turkish.
Then we always choose a kebab — beef or chicken or iskender, slices of gyro meat served over cubes of pita bread and more yogurt and fresh tomato sauce. And rice.
“Customers always ask us why our rice is so good,” Sengul tells me. “We use basmati.” But, Bulent adds, “The way we cook it is a Turkish style.”
Sengul learned the technique from her mother back in Ankara. “We put orzo pasta in our rice and cook it in butter,” she says.
Sengul and Bulent did not know each other back in Turkey.
They met online in the U.S. as Bulent was working on a master’s degree in international business at the University of North Alabama in Florence, where he completed a bachelor’s in business management and marketing.
“It’s been a journey,” Bulent says as he and his wife reflect on all the work it took to transform their aging building into a welcoming space. But with the help of customers who have donated Turkish treasures from their basements and the Yamans’ boundless energy, Red Meze has become a major focal point in Johnson City’s downtown revitalization.
The building has been entirely updated, with new wiring and plumbing. The work took about 16 months. Bulent describes the seating as “Asheville style.” The place has the look and feel of ethnic restaurants we have visited in Manhattan.
Bulent was born in Germany, and he and his family moved back to Turkey when he was nine years old. In Turkey, his father owned a coffee shop.
As Bulent explains to me the procedure for boiling water, coffee, and sugar the Turkish way, in the copper pot called a cezve, he describes the serving of coffee after the meal as “the pleasure time.”
It’s an accurate description of the entire dining experience at Red Meze.
109 Buffalo St.