Lokanta brings Mediterranean flair to Walnut Creek.
Leaping higher than our server’s curly coif, a brandy-fueled flame appears like a jinni from her outstretched arm. It’s a flambé of fried Halloumi, a firm sheep’s-milk cheese from Cyprus. Paired with grilled pears, the dish is illustrative of Lokanta Mediterranean Grill and Bar’s dynamic ambience.
Ceiling lights of shifting colors and dangling Edison-style bulbs illuminate a sleek bar that stretches the length of a narrow, brick-walled dining room. The friendly, well-groomed staff in crisp bistro attire bring cocktail-friendly Mediterranean treats, such as warm dolmas and hummus, jumbo spanakopita, and creamy white beans bathed in a fragrant red wine vinaigrette.
A mustachioed and beret-capped Fevzi Dinc, who oversees the dining room with a hawk’s focus and sparrow’s agility, joins fellow countrymen chef Muhammet Culha and Dogan Ozdogan, the Turkish owners of the original Lokanta in Pleasanton.
I’ve eaten numerous times at that location, so the concept was familiar, but I was impressed by the Walnut Creek restaurant’s chic-industrial decor and by my first meal, which starred Italian-style braised short ribs richly perfumed with garlic, shallots, and a heady dose of earthy porcini.
Just as intoxicating was my appetizer of shrimp baked with Feta and finished with a licorice-sweet shot of ouzo. The shrimp were a tad overdone, but the sauce was the point of the dish—it made a lustrous dip for warm slices of house-baked bread. The sauce reminded me of the ouzo-spiked tomato coulis, which had accompanied the roasted branzino (a Mediterranean bass) that I raved about in my review of the Pleasanton restaurant five years ago.
Culha calls the branzino his favorite dish and runs it as a special, and perhaps will eventually make it a fixture on the menu, in Walnut Creek. When I talked to him after my anonymous visits, he was preparing for a trip to Turkey the next day, where he would be scouting local restaurants for further menu inspiration.
Lokanta’s signature entrée is talas, a pastry pie commonly filled with lamb or beef. Culha riffs on the flaky phyllo dish, stuffing it with grilled chicken, saucing it with coconut curry, and garnishing it with julienne apple. Like his Greek-style moussaka made with rich béchamel, it’s comfort food with an ethnic edge.
Offering summer quenchers such as the citrusy elderflower cucumber collins, the long bar and lounge area—with its reclaimed wood and communal table—has potential to become a lively scene. On my first visit, a vivacious woman on her first trip here (but a regular at the Pleasanton restaurant) shouted, “You’re going to love it,” to a man dining alone across the bar. Even the wine list, with uncommon choices such as the soft, subtly sweet Turkish reds and whites, is provocative. Look to the “other reds” and “other whites” to find some great matches for Culha’s bold Mediterranean fare.
Despite the partylike atmosphere, Lokanta is designed for a leisurely meal. Start with a complimentary ramekin of pureed Kalamata olives, garlic, and olive oil to slather on house-baked bread, and finish with Culha’s baklava or Turkish apricots stuffed with mascarpone cheese. And if you’re there during the day, grab a patio table; Locust Street makes for entertaining people watching.
At brunch on the patio, where we started with the flaming Halloumi cheese, we ordered entrées of stuffed whole eggplant and the Lokanta, a buttery scramble of organic eggs served with lightly grilled sausage, spanakopita, crispy fried potatoes, and summer fruit. It was quite the grand slam.
The Halloumi cheese had been seared in a cast-iron pan before being brought to the table. I was startled at first by the flavor—the fiery liquor leaves behind a pungent punch. Like brandy, it’s an acquired taste. But don’t be shy; if it sits and cools, the cheese will stiffen. You, however, are more likely to relax over time. The gutsy food, warm service, and excellent drinks will see to that. And if you do overindulge, finish with made-to-order Turkish coffee or a shot of ouzo. They make excellent digestifs.
Contact: 1520 Locust St., Walnut Creek, (925) 322-8671, eatlokanta.com. Lunch and dinner daily, brunch Sat.–Sun.