Chefs’ Choice: Why Smyrna is Charlottesville’s Latest Industry Favorite

There’s lots to like about Smyrna. The food is delicious. The service thoughtful. And the setting transporting. But, what may stand out most about the restaurant that opened this summer on West Main is the clientele. On most visits – particularly Sundays – you may spot top chefs at nearby tables on their nights off. Every now and then, a restaurant comes along and captures the hearts of Charlottesville chefs. For now, that’s Smyrna.

The man most responsible for this is chef Tarik Sengul, a New York transplant who trained at hot spots like Temple Court and the world-renowned L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon before moving to Charlottesville to open his own restaurant. His mentor at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, Christophe Bellanca, calls Sengul one of the best he has ever worked with – high praise given the caliber of chefs that pass through the kitchen of a Michelin-starred restaurant. It’s no wonder Sengul’s food has earned such a following in his short time in Charlottesville.

It’s not just the caliber of cooking, though, that keeps chefs coming back, but the style of food, too. Sengul takes the classical training and techniques he honed under chefs like Bellanca, and applies them to the flavors of his native Turkey. Sengul calls it “traditional Anatolian cuisine, cooked with Appalachian ingredients, using modern techniques.” The result is unlike anything in Charlottesville, and rare anywhere in the country. While Turkish restaurants are not uncommon in some parts of the U.S. (Charlottesville boasts Sultan Kebab and Otto), they often focus on rustic, informal fare, rather than the type of cuisine coming out of Sengul’s kitchen.

“It’s a new style of cookery we very much needed and a welcome addition to the area,” said Belle chef and co-owner John Shanesy. “Tarik’s pedigree is hard earned, and you can taste the confidence in his dishes. Clean, minimal and straight to the point.” Case in point was a bowl of gazpacho with sour cherry and goat cheese that Shanesy enjoyed during a birthday dinner for his wife. “The tartness of the cherry with fresh heirloom tomatoes and the creamy Caromont goat cheese was put together wonderfully,” Shanesey said. “Three textures, each very important and in harmony together.”

Lampo’s Loren Mendosa, once named C-VILLE’s Best Chef, also celebrated a special occasion at Smyrna, and says he was blown away by the whole experience. “I went in with expectations of fine dining,” said Mendosa. “And, while it is that in some respects, it is such a different take on it, with the Turkish and Mediterranean influence.” Mendosa enjoyed everything, but the standout was manti – handmade Turkish dumplings stuffed with Sharondale Farm mushrooms, served with garlic yogurt and dehydrated tomato, and drizzled with pepper butter sauce. “That was the dish that stuck with me,” said Mendosa.

The manti is a two-day affair, beginning with handmade dough that Sengul calls a hybrid of Italian pasta dough and classic Aegean manti dough. The aim is a texture that sits between the softness of Asian dumplings and the firm bite of a Western noodle, Sengul said.

For the filling, Sengul’s team sears a medley of mushrooms with herbs, and blends them with dehydrated cherry tomatoes and creamy ricotta. After cooling, the filling goes into piping bags. The next day, the dough is rolled to appropriate thickness and cut into squares for filling and shaping into dumplings. That vital step belongs to a manti expert named Seda, who hails from a Turkish city known for its manti: Izmir, which, incidentally, was once called Smyrna. One by one, Seda meticulously fills each manti and folds them into little purses.

To order, the kitchen boils about 15 manti to al dente, and then tosses them in clarified butter with dehydrated tomatoes and herbs, and plates the dumplings over a garlic-infused yogurt. A sprinkling of Manakintowne herbs finishes the dish for service.

Smyrna is not just for fancy-smancy dishes and special occasions, though. It does everyday fare, too, like kebabs, steak, and burgers. Some chefs are regulars, like Mendosa’s Lampo co-owner Mitchell Beerens, also a C-VILLE Best Chef winner. “I love Smyrna,” said Beerens. “I’ve been a dozen times at least. Best steak in town.”

Sengul says that the most important lesson he has taken from his years of training is the importance of harmony among ingredients. “Like music, food is a composition,” said Sengul. “It requires combining many different elements, prepared with the utmost respect and focus on the task at hand to produce a sum greater than its parts.” That focus extends to all of Smyrna’s food, as two-time James Beard semifinalist Angelo Vangelopoulos, of The Ivy Inn, observed during a big family dinner. “I tasted nearly everything on the menu,” said Vangelopoulos. “and thoroughly enjoyed every dish, with raki-balik, manti, octopus and kebabs being highlights.” Zocalo chef and owner Ivan Rekosh had a similar experience sampling most of Smyrna’s food. “There were no duds on the menu, and we ordered a ton,” said Rekosh.

Sengul’s cooking has even won praise from notoriously tough food critic Jose de Brito. The James Beard semifinalist behind Café Frank calls Smyrna “one of the best additions to the Charlottesville food scene of the last few years.” Particularly impressive to de Brito has been attention to detail, in dishes like charred eggplant, which Sengul first grills, and then cools quickly and coats in olive oil to prevent oxidization. Next, he scoops out the flesh, chops it, and adds confit garlic, confit red peppers, and cilantro, and finishes it all with a drizzle of pomegranate reduction. “No bitterness and perfect seasoning,” said de Brito, who also cites Sengul’s hummus as a favorite. “One of the best in a long time,” said de Brito.

Sengul co-owns Smyrna with Orhun Dikmen, a longtime employee of his brother’s restaurant Sultan Kebab. As manager of the front of the house, Orhun is largely responsible for another aspect of Smyrna that chefs find so appealing. Kindness. While this may seem an odd criterion for dining out, chefs cannot help but mention it when discussing Smyrna. “You can tell its genuine,” Mendosa said of the kindness of Smyrna’s owners and staff. De Brito said the same. “They are genuinely nice, and it is palpable that they care,” said de Brito. “Their hospitality is the cherry on top of great food.” Vangelopoulos agrees. “The thing that stands out most is Tarik and Orhun’s passion and excitement for hospitality,” said Vangelopoulos. “They visited every table to check whether guests were enjoying themselves, all the while excitedly explaining dishes and ingredients.”

Smyrna is open for dinner Wednesday through Sunday at 707 W. Main Street.