Introducing Smyrna: Aegean and Charlottesville Hospitality Meet on West Main

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before. Two Turkish immigrants with a love of hospitality meet while working at a restaurant and then open their own place in Charlottesville. The same story behind successes like Sultan Kebab and Otto has given rise to another Charlottesville restaurant. Orhun Dikmen and Tarik Sengul open Smyrna this week on West Main.

Dikmen came to the United States in 2015 to pursue a career in hospitality, and began in New York as a server at a popular Gramercy wine bar, where Sengul happened to be chef. Both from Turkey, they became fast friends. The following year, Dikmen moved to Charlottesville to help his brother launch the new downtown location of Sultan Kebab, but all the while stayed in touch with Sengul, with whom he often discussed their shared dream of opening a restaurant together.

That dream came to life earlier this year when they learned that the former home to Mangione’s on Main was available. They leapt at it.

Why Charlottesville for a Turkish tandem who met in New York? The fit was no accident, say Dikmen and Sengul. Smyrna is the ancient name for Izmir, the city on the Aegean sea where Dikmen is from, which, like Charlottesville, is known for food and hospitality. Dikmen’s brother even runs a restaurant in Izmir, and Dikmen says that it is Charlottesville’s “soul of hospitality” that people like him find so appealing. “It’s multi-cultural and alive.” Dikmen would sing Charlottesville’s praises so often that Sengul made several visits to see for himself. He was so impressed that he agreed to relocate to launch their restaurant together. “Charlottesville has a dynamic spirt,” said Sengul. “We want to match that spirit at Smyrna,” said Sengul.

Aegean Cuisine by a World Class Chef

While it’s not uncommon for people to be drawn to Charlottesville, it is rare for a chef to arrive with a resume like Sengul’s. After the Gramcery wine bar, Sengul cooked at Tom Colicchio’s Temple Court, and also spent several years at world-renowned L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon under mentor Christophe Bellanca. “He is one of the best I have ever worked with,” said Bellanca – high praise given the caliber of chefs at a Michelin-starred restaurant. “The most imporant thing to me is his finesse,” Bellanca said. “He is very precise and smart, with a cooking sensibility. Some guys just get it.”

Tarik Sengul (Center), with Spencer Dunsmore (L) and Nadim Mukaddem (R)

At Smyrna, Sengul draws on his classical training to apply Aegean flavors to local Virginia ingredients. With finesse, of course. “Raki-Balik” is a delicate, playful ode to the Turkish practice of enjoying fish (“balik”) with Raki, a spirit made from grapes and aniseed. Sengul starts by curing fluke lightly in lemon zest, salt, and sugar, just to firm the flesh. Then he makes cantaloupe compressed with anise, shaves fennel, and sets the fluke, melon, and shaved fennel in a pool of vinaigrette laced with reduced Raki.

Charred eggplant is more traditional. Sengul chars the eggplant on a grill, and cools it very quickly and coats it in olive oil to avoid oxidization. He scoops out the flesh, chops it, and adds confit garlic and confit red peppers. Finally, he mixes in cilantro and tops it all with a pomegranate reduction. “Simplicity and careful handling of ingredients is the key here,” said Sengul.

And, a selection of skewers is a nod to ocakbaşı, a style of casual restaurant in Turkey where grilled food is served directly to customers sitting beside the grill. For lamb meatball skewers, Sengul starts with whole legs of lamb which he breaks down, de-sinews, and then double-grinds the meat to yield a smooth texture. He gently mixes the meat with his blend of spices, and rolls it into small balls, which he chills so that they can be skewered properly. On the grill, he starts them on high heat to create a crust, and then moves them to lighter coals to gently cook them through. “Flare ups and smoke are the enemy of cooking on the grill, as they’ll mask the flavor of the meat, which must be the star,” said Sengul. Meanwhile, Sengul brushes lavash bread with lamb fat and toasts it on the grill. To serve, he spreads spicy garlic yogurt dressing on the bread, and tops the meatballs with pickled fennel. It’s a plate of food that is every bit as delicious as it sounds.

Open Tuesday June 28, Smyrna serves dinner Tuesday through Sunday nights. Follow along on Smyrna’s Instagram.