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Posted on Wed, Feb 29, 2012 : 8:59 a.m.

Ayse's offers delicious, satisfying tastes of Turkish cuisine

By Kim Bayer

Entering Ayse's Turkish Cafe, just off Plymouth Road in Ann Arbor, is a moment of cognitive dissonance. Your eyes are telling you that you're at the back of a low-slung strip mall, but your nose is telling you that you're in the Cappadocian home of someone cooking onions, exotic spices and savory meat for dinner. Both are correct.

As you walk in, you'll notice art on the walls, fresh flowers on the tables and a refrigerated case filled with home-cooked desserts and vegetarian dishes (like eggplant stew and pasta with cheese) in front of you. The whiteboard above the case lists about a dozen of the day's specials, things like eggplant karniyarik, red pepper lamb dolma, sultan's moussaka and macaroni with ground lamb. This is where you place your order with the smiling and friendly owner, Ayse Uras.

Ayse's Turkish Cafe doesn't have printed menus because Uras, also head chef, writes out what she's cooking just before lunch and before dinner. The list on the whiteboard is a representative subset of what's on the website. Uras says she likes to cook according to what's she able to get from her butcher and the market. From April to the end of October, she says she prefers to shop at the farmers market, basing her menu on what's in season. But always there's eggplant — in eggplant moussaka, stuffed baby eggplant and a kind of Turkish ratatouille.


Ayse's Turkish Cafe
1703 Plymouth Road, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48105
  • Hours: Monday thru Friday: Lunch: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Dinner: 5-9 p.m., Saturday 5-9 p.m., Closed Sunday
  • Plastic: Visa, Mastercard
  • Liquor: Wine, beer and Turkish Raki
  • Prices: Moderate. Entrees are $10-$23 for dinner
  • Noise level: Quiet
  • Wheelchair access:Yes

As a secular Muslim, Uras doesn't cook pork. Instead, many of the dishes at Ayse's include lamb, with a few beef, chicken and fish dishes too. She says she buys her lamb from the Jerusalem International Market next door, and from the local Hannewald Lamb farm in Stockbridge. Because Uras does the shopping herself, she's able to tell customers if the meat that day is halal or not.

It's clear that Uras takes pride in knowing every ingredient in her dishes. Not only can she say whether the meat is halal, she can also tell customers with food allergies whether a dish, many of which are already gluten free or vegan, is safe for them.

A traditional Turkish meal begins with soup, and Ayse's offers two vegetarian soups daily. One of those is always the house red lentil soup, of which Uras says, "Every customer loves it!" The texture of the mildly spiced vegan red lentil and rice pottage is soft and creamy. A sprinkle of warm, brick-red sumac powder on top contrasts nicely with the soft orange color and nutty taste of the soup.

The cold yogurt soup with chopped cucumber and lots of garlic was not quite as appealing. It's a simple soup, perfect for hot weather. But the day I tried it there was a mild plastic flavor that detracted from the fresh cucumber and lactic tang of the yogurt.

The entrees we had were delicious. As I ordered the moussaka, Uras was careful to tell me that this was the Turkish version of the eggplant and lamb casserole, and that it did not have the white sauce of the traditional Greek version.

Indeed, it was a lighter version of the Greek classic but every bit as good. Thick slices of silky eggplant were layered with ground lamb in a tomato based sauce with hints of warm spices and olive oil, sprinkled on top with parsley.

Uras had recommended the bulgur pilav as the proper accompaniment for the Moussaka, and she was right. The pilav, tender grains of wheat cooked with sauteed bits of peppers and onion and a little tomato paste, was spiked with just a little mint — enough to surprise your tongue.

Uras explained to us that she used to only make the long-cooked lamb shank on the weekends, but it was so popular that she decided it deserved a spot during the week. I'm glad she did.

The shank is rubbed with a secret mix of herbs before slow cooking to melting tenderness. The mild, falling-off-the-bone lamb is served in classic combination with white beans in a tomato-based sauce. In fact, those fat little beans were my husband's favorite part of the meal — he said they were so savory it was like having another meat on the plate. Uras recommended the rice pilav, long grained white rice mixed with vermicelli, to accompany the lamb.

At dinner, each entree is served carefully, unadorned with extraneous sprigs. Portions are so generous that I had to restrain myself from finishing the moussaka to save room for more desserts.

I love it when restaurants have interesting desserts. My low bar for "interesting desserts" is anything other than chocolate mousse, creme brulee and tiramisu — that tired triumvirate on nearly every menu.

Ayse's has a lot of interesting desserts. Many are pudding-ish, though not necessarily milk-based, and served cold in a cup or a bowl. We didn't get to try Alice's Pudding, made with chocolate and figs but learned that Uras named it after a longtime customer who comes in nearly every day.

Noah's Pudding is a classic Turkish dessert, vegan, with many ingredients, like cracked wheat, chickpeas, figs, apricots, walnuts, rosewater and pomegranate seeds. Uras told us that "Noah" refers to Noah's Ark, and the pudding is supposed to reflect the collection of everything in the Ark. Like a granola bar in a cup, it was very sweet, packed with dried fruit, grains, and nuts. I enjoyed the hint of rosewater and the novelty of flavors and textures I don't expect together.

The House Pudding was a mild milk pudding thickened with nubbly semolina and swirled with cocoa. This dessert made me think of the best-ever cream of wheat marbled with Cocoa Wheats.

Since we don't usually eat uncamouflaged members of the squash family as dessert, I thought the most unusual sweet for the American palate was the butternut squash, large chunks of tender butternut almost candied in a clove-scented syrup with walnut pieces on top.

Perhaps my favorite of the desserts we tried was the kadayif. Reminiscent of baklava, squares of Ayse's kadayif are made up of thin, shredded wheat-like pastry strands which Uras called "shredded phyllo." In Turkish recipes, a portion of the string-like kadayif pastry is spread on a metal plate, covered with crushed nuts, usually walnuts or pistachios, and topped with the remaining pastry. After a sprinkling with melted butter, it's baked until golden, and finally soaked in a sugar syrup. Uras says she adds lemon to her sugar syrup. I loved the combination of rich, gooey crunchiness.

Like all the food, the desserts are cooked in-house and very fresh. The pride and enthusiasm for home-style cooking is one of the things that impressed me most about Ayse's Turkish Cafe. Uras told me "the food we're trying to make is very, very home cooking. The things we grow up with. I don't make the kebabs or grilled things that you find in the restaurants. These are the things we can find in the houses. That's how I grew up."

The attempt to give an authentic experience of Turkey extends also to the beverage selection. Ayse's offers a selection of Turkish tea, coffee, juices, sodas and Turkish Raki, an anise-flavored liquor sometimes called the national drink. Uras's home region of Central Anatolia is known for grape-growing, and Ayse's offers Turkish wine and beer options as well.

Not only was the service at Ayse's prompt, courteous and thoughtful, but it is very clear that it's not the typical generic experience where you have no idea who is in the kitchen. Uras says, "Sometimes people call and say they're coming in this day, and ask if I'll have something in particular. Often, I can make it for them — it's fun, and more personal that way."

While we were there, my glass of Turkish tea was refilled every time it was empty and the young servers were helpful in answering questions. Though not necessarily experts in the traditions and cuisine of Turkey, they were quick to get answers if they were unfamiliar.

Ayse's Turkish Cafe is far from the Central Anatolian "land of fairy chimneys and underground cities" where Ayse Uras's hometown of Cappadocia is located. But after cooking in her location in back of the Courtyard Shops off of Plymouth Road for the past 18 and a half years, she still says, "If my customers knew how much I love cooking, they would ask me to pay them."

It's easy to tell that the food at Ayse's is made with love, but I hope that her customers don't find out just how much.


Turkish coffee and desserts at Ayse's Turkish Cafe in the Courtyard Shops off Plymouth Rd.

Photo | Kim Bayer

Kim Bayer is a freelance writer and culinary researcher. Email her at kimbayer at gmail dot com.


Deborah Gibson

Sat, Nov 24, 2012 : 5:50 p.m.

I love dining with Ayse. I feel at home there by myself, with a friend or with my extended family. The art, music, textiles, combine w/ her gracious hosting to elevate every outing. We love Aysse and of course we love your menus, all of them.

Linda Peck

Wed, Feb 29, 2012 : 9:24 p.m.

Wonderful article! I will be vising Ayse's soon!


Wed, Feb 29, 2012 : 8:39 p.m.

Thanks for the nice review. I'm curious, Kim, what kind of culinary research do you do? What does it entail? Sounds quite interesting!

Dave Sullivan

Wed, Feb 29, 2012 : 8:01 p.m.

I wonder if Ayse ever makes gözleme? Haven't been able to find any in SE MI.


Wed, Feb 29, 2012 : 6:18 p.m.

Ayse's is an excellent restaurant, and the fact that she stays busy while being tucked into an invisible location is a testament to that. Been going there for years; it's wonderful. (Kept this separate from the typo response in case deleted that one after the fix.)


Wed, Feb 29, 2012 : 5:55 p.m.

Nice to see a review that actually deals with the food and not simply with one person's taste ("I liked the macaroni but did not like the cole slaw"). Thank you! Ayse's place has been around for some time and many of us who love Turkish food have appreciated it for years--she deserves the recognition. May I suggest, however, that reviewers taste the food anonymously and not deal with the owners or chefs in restaurants. This provides a better distance and guarantees more objectivity. As for Health Dpt. inspection reports--anyone who really cares should search those out for themselves or simply eat at home. Who has seen any reputable restaurant reviewers resort to that?


Thu, Mar 1, 2012 : 5:01 p.m.

Thank you Bob for the clarification. It is good to know--some of your reviewers cite the owners or chefs extensively and this gives the impression that they were discussing matters with them while dining or preparing for the review.

Kim Bayer

Wed, Feb 29, 2012 : 11:03 p.m.

Just to clarify, I remain anonymous when I visit a restaurant but may need to identify myself when I phone afterward for additional details. Thanks for the feedback!

Bob Needham

Wed, Feb 29, 2012 : 10:11 p.m.

Our reviewers do remain anonymous while dining at a restaurant.


Wed, Feb 29, 2012 : 3:18 p.m.

Thank you for providing the readership with a very informative review; the photographs also were well done. I haven't eaten there in several years, as it is on the other side of town from me, but am considering revisiting it after reading your review. How was their last Health Dept. Inspection Report? For those of us who care (and I know some do not), I for one would appreciate at least a mention of how this and all other reviewed restaurants fared at their last one or two Health Dept. inspections. Certainly, such information is relevant to an assessment of a restaurant, and I wish you and any other restaurant reviewers would provide such information as a matter of routine, similar to location and hours of operation. Thanks.


Sat, Mar 3, 2012 : 3:24 a.m.

@nuseph, I disagree. I believe I always have noted the dates of any health inspections (at least month and year), so any reader would know if would be relevant for that period alone. Any reviewer could easily do the same. By your logic, any information about the restaurant could be outdated. Their server staff could change, their menu could change, their cooks/chefs could change, heck, even the owner might change. Does that make any information in the review irrelevant? Well, you might think so, thinking as you do, but I don't. I recognize (and I think almost all reasonable people would as well) that the findings reported in any review are subject to change in the future. The same would apply to the results of their Health Dept. inspections.


Fri, Mar 2, 2012 : 4:51 a.m.

I assume these reviews are online permanently. The inspection results would need to be updated every time an inspection takes place (for better and worse). Unrealistic and unnecessary.


Wed, Feb 29, 2012 : 9:29 p.m.

Thanks, Jessica. It is nice to see that Ayse's has done well in that department, and it is not surprising to me given the apparent attention to detail I have seen during past visits, as well as that reflected in the article. As exemplified by Ayse's results, information from Health Dept. inspections can be an asset for the restaurant if they are conscientious, and not so much if they are not. I hope will consider including this information in restaurant reviews in the future. I understand it is not information that typically has been included in past reviews, but it is information which some potential patrons would like to know. I also understand the information is available online (and I know how to access it), but so are the address and phone number, and these are routinely included in such reviews and are much more easily and widely available than Health Dept. inspection reviews. Again, thanks for the information.

Jessica Webster

Wed, Feb 29, 2012 : 8:45 p.m.

Hi DBH - I just checked the restaurant inspection database. Ayse's most recent inspection was in November. They had 2 non-critical violations. No critical violations in the two most recent inspections. We posted January's restaurant reviews today: <a href=""></a>


Wed, Feb 29, 2012 : 3:14 p.m.

Ayse's last name is &quot;Uras,&quot; not &quot;Ursa&quot; as you have it throughout the article.

Jessica Webster

Wed, Feb 29, 2012 : 3:34 p.m.

Thank you - that correction has been made.