Knoxville needs more locally owned restaurants—especially ethnic restaurants—so I want to praise Ephesus for simply being here. But because I really like Mediterranean food, I'm not just giving them a pass. My expectations are high. I want big, bold, fresh flavors. I want to taste the herbs and spices. I want to feel transported to one of my favorite parts of the world.
Ephesus is more café than casbah. It's a clean, pleasant space with lemon-colored walls, tile floors, dark wood tables and chairs, and three big, comfy high-backed booths. Piped-in Turkish music, black-and-white photographs of archeological relics, faux columns, and textured wall hangings announce its Mediterranean roots.
The menu includes appetizers, salads, platters, gyros, wraps, and vegetarian plates. In a couple of visits, my companions and I sampled the hummus, baba ghannouj, tzatziki, feta cheese rolls, and grape leaves, along with the gyros, chicken shish kabob, chicken tava, and—just because we knew you'd want to know—we also tried the baklava.
The hummus was very good, lemony, garlicky, and attractively presented with a drizzle of red pepper sauce. The only problem was a shortage of warm pita points, but more were quickly delivered upon request. The pita is excellent—soft, puffy, and crisp-edged.
Baba ghannouj usually comes in one of two forms: chunky or smooth. Ephesus' version adds a new dimension; it's chunky, but it also has lots of little bits of vegetables and much less eggplant than the Greek version.
On my first visit, the tzatziki was too thick—a complaint almost never made about that condiment. It takes patient straining and the right kind of yogurt to thicken the sauce, so it's far more common to find tzatziki that's too thin. The second time it was the perfect consistency, slightly touched with garlic and lemon juice and laced with cucumber bits.
The feta cheese rolls were crunchy and a little dry unless dipped in the tzatziki or hummus. The grape leaves were soft, with pleasantly mushy rice interiors.
There is an appetizer menu, but sharing one of the three vegetarian plates is a great—and inexpensive—way to go. You can order hummus and pita for $3.99 or you can order feta cheese, olives, salad, hummus, and pita for $6.99 or cheese rolls, grape leaves, baba ghannouj, tzatziki, and pita for $7.49.
The falafel on the appetizer menu is unusual: four perfectly egg-shaped, rather large mounds, each forming a crunchy barrier to a slightly moist middle. On my first visit, the tahini sauce was so luscious—garlicky with a spicy aftertaste—I was forgiving about the falafel; on my second visit, the tahini sauce was too lemony, almost bitter, which made me less forgiving of the falafel's dryness.
I had heard good reports about the sliced, roasted lamb in the gyros. On my first visit, I was disappointed: the meat seemed dry, bland, and overcooked. On my second visit, there was a dramatic difference. The meat was delicious: tender, delicately peppery, good wrapped in pita or just eaten on a fork.
There are several different kabobs. Not being able to talk my companions into the "Epheseus Combo," which includes four kabobs, I've only had the chicken shish kabob, which was somewhat dry but had a spicy, seared exterior, well complemented by the pickled onion salad.
The chicken tava is the spiciest dish I've discovered at Ephesus: diced chicken breast, garlic, tomatoes, and green bell peppers in red pepper sauce. The rice, served with this and other dishes, was perfectly cooked—no small feat. It's a simple thing, but easy to mess up. Every helping of rice I tasted was excellent: mildly flavored with firm, completely separated grains.
The baklava, served in three tiny honey-soaked pieces, had a faint cinnamon taste. If you like baklava, you'll want all three pieces. For me, a bite sufficed.
I wasn't transported to another continent, and maybe that's too much to ask. But consistency is a reasonable request. If Ephesus will do its best every time, I'll happily supply the fantasy. m