(Published on Baristanet Dec. 20, 2010)

If there’s one thing Valley Road had lacked, it was a family restaurant serving wholesome, ethnic food, with lashings of warmth and hospitality.

Enter Four Seasons, the Kebab House, on Valley Road in Montclair, NJ.

Owner Ozturk Eren, 44, is very particular. From the way he is adamant Turkish tea should be drunk – straight up without milk or sugar, to his insistence, for consistency’s sake, on personally preparing all the safely guarded family recipe-based sauces served at Four Seasons, he knows exactly what he wants.

Certainly, the lack of consistency has kept me away from several food joints in and around Montclair.

But I will not want for it here.

Ozturk, who hails from a hazelnut- and tea-exporting city named Trabzon on Turkey’s northeastern coast, about 700 miles from the capital Ankara, has food, and the food business, coursing through his veins. He has cooked for 17 years, and his father is a chef of 44 years who owned a restaurant in Turkey.

The father of two kids aged 8 years and 6 months cares deeply about food quality and food origins.

“I’m a big believer in organic food, in fresh and authentic food,” he told Baristanet.

A Maywood, NJ resident who has lived in the U.S. for nearly 20 years, Ozturk said he had hunted high and low for a year for a suitable location for his restaurant. And then he found Montclair.

“People (here) are nicer than in other areas,” Ozturk explains. “They know Turkish food and I don’t have to explain it to them. They seem happy and there are also so many different kinds of people here,” he said, explaining that it was easy to fit in, in such a diverse town.

It tickles him that residents enjoy his food so much they are staggered at the modestly priced immense lunch specials- which include a hummus starter, fish, vegetarian or meat entree, soup and dessert – for a mere $9.95 (excluding tax).

But, says Ozturk, “I won’t change the price. I rely on word-of-mouth advertising,” which he feels brings in a loyal clientele.

Why Four Seasons, I ask, a name that I had driven past many times without stopping because it didn’t scream outright “Turkish” or any sort of … well, anything. The answer takes us back to consistency.

“Spring, summer, autumn, winter – whatever time of year you come here, the food (quality) will always be the same. You will always know what to expect,” Ozturk said.

I’ve got to agree with him. I had visited the restaurant several times, confident of having a great meal each time, before I cornered Ozturk for a tete-a-tete.

The Food

On my first visit, my husband and I chaperoned four children (two were ours, two were sleepover dates of our kids) to the capacity-filled, homey restaurant and the entire group was silenced by the delicious hummus appetizer and fresh, warm pide bread, which Ozturk says is sans sugar or fat.

That was moments before our tastebuds were stunned into further submission by the next appetizer, grape leaves, stuffed with a sweet, purplish rice, with hints of mint and oregano, that overshadowed any stuffed grape leaves we’d had before.

I asked him if these were a family recipe.

Ozturk said, “Yes. They are stuffed with rice that has been cooked with dried grapes, black pepper, and the leaves are from Orlando – expensive but the best and worth it.”

The stuffing also includes white onion, seasoning and Four Seasons’ special mix of herbs. Absolutely heaven.

We followed this with lamb entrees, a gyro (et doner) for my husband and baked lamb (kuzu tandir) for me, while the children ordered a mix of chicken kebabs and freshly made chicken fingers. The kids’ chicken, piping hot, juicy and tender, was served with red rice and a yellow buttery rice, both delicious, and a healthy serving of al dente broccoli and cauliflower. Needless to say, their plates were practically licked clean.

My oven-baked lamb was tender and flavorful, also served with rice two ways and vegetables on the side, and my husband quietly polished off his lamb gyro before I had a chance to beg a taste.

Dessert, of a traditional Turkish coconut milk pudding in chocolate or vanilla, sweetened just enough not to be coying, was light and cold. The perfect riposte to a rich meal. Though we couldn’t resist the baklava – honeyed, ambrosial, crushed pistachios sandwiched between puffy filo pastry – sweet, and exquisite.

Service was top notch, with attentive and friendly waitstaff who were comfortable engaging the younger patrons.

Ozturk’s particularity goes all the way to the juices served at Four Seasons, which are from Turkey because they “aren’t as sugary as U.S. juices.”

“What’s very important to me is to always, always be clean and keep the restaurant and kitchen clean,” said Ozturk who was wearing what looked like surgical gloves while speaking to me, as he had nipped back into the kitchen to bring out a piece of baklava to go with my glass of Turkish tea.

“The other thing is to always, always follow measurements strictly.” And there it is. The key to Four Seasons’ reliability, so that he doesn’t have to supervise every inch of the production process.

“Tasty Water”

While every table has a bottle of San Pellegrino on it, it’s rarely served because “Montclair’s water is tasty; it’s like club soda,” he says, and his patrons are happy with it.

Four Seasons has an open kitchen, into which diners can peer, while enjoying the bustle and sense of immediacy it offers.

“People seem to like it,” Ozturk said, urging me to taste a freshly fried falafel from a 27-year family recipe (it was delicious). “And it’s important to me for the kitchen and the dinners to be able to see each other. But it means we always have to have a smile for everyone. Even if we are having a bad day, people don’t visit the restaurant to hear about your bad day, they come for the food.”

While the consistency of food quality at Four Seasons may not (and hopefully will not) change, Ozturk enjoys feedback and isn’t afraid to act on it. Customers asked him to make the desserts less sweet, and he happily obliged.

He plans to add a few items to the restaurant’s lunch menu, such as lamb burgers, soups and more salads, also based on feedback.

I’ve found another reason, though, to go back to Four Seasons. Ozturk’s effusive warmth, fueled by enthusiasm for what he does, which had been there in spades on previous visits, long before before the word “Baristanet” ever cropped up.

“I really enjoy it,” he says. “I love to see everyone’s faces as they come in and after they’ve eaten.”

Four Seasons Kebab House

594 Valley Road, Montclair, NJ 07043

Open Mon through Sun, 11:30am to 11:00pm

Tel: 973 707 7651