Turkish tastes in London

Turkish tastes in London

After my brief visit to London last month, I kept thinking about the past of Turkish cuisine in London. My parents were in love with the city. For that reason, since primary school, we had our yearly London pilgrimage. They were also keen on discovering new tastes. Back then, London was not the most exciting place in the world in terms of food, even the concept of fast food was limited to Wimpy Burger joints, but then, one could enjoy really good food in ethnic restaurants, primarily catering for their own communities. During those years, foreign cuisines were practically absent in Türkiye, so our visit was always in search of those diverse World cuisines, such as Chinese or Indian. My father loved the kitchen of the Swiss Center in Leicester Square, so we would occasionally have our cheese twist there, enjoying all the Schnitzel and so on. But frankly speaking, we never went to Turkish restaurants unless we had to. At some point, my mother’s art historian colleagues would invite us to a Turkish restaurant, as a polite gesture, or we would end up inviting them. Nevertheless, I had the chance to observe, and see the change, particularly after my transformation from architecture to food writing in the early 2000s.

In those early years, Efes restaurant located in Central London was one of the few representatives of Turkish cuisine, soon to be followed by Efes 2. In 1989, Âdem Öner and his wife, Pırıl, opened İznik in Highbury Park, which became a gamechanger. First of all, the ambiance was different. The omnipresent fluorescent-lit fridge displaying the sad-looking meze selection was nowhere to be seen. Even that was a big change in the usual setting of Turkish restaurants. Iznik had a romantic ambiance in a fairytale-like atmosphere with countless candles and colorful lamps. Âdem was a keen collector of Turkish arts and crafts, he took pride in displaying antique Iznik tiles, hence the name of the restaurant. They served home-cooked Turkish cuisine from their tiny kitchen, receiving incredible praise at the time, and former Prime Minister Tony Blair became a regular when he was still a Labor Party MP. Nigel Slater, living nearby, would stop for their “mücver,” courgette fritters. Their “imam bayıldı” was phenomenal, just as a Turkish mom would cook. The number of similar restaurants multiplied rapidly, and places like Gallipoli in Angel followed the path paved by Adem.

In the meantime, places serving regional Turkish food started popping up. The motive was not only to cater to their own communities, they were also creating job opportunities for the newcomer migrants. First, it was Diyarbakır (1991), then Antepliler (1993), followed by Gökyüzü (1999) in Harringay Green Lanes. They were so popular that a Turkish zone was formed on the same street with gözleme, lahmacun, döner, baklava, künefe joints, greengrocers, bakeries and markets. Another line developed in Dalston, places like Mangal 1 and Cirrik became similar neighborhood transformers. Tas, which would later open in many other localities, set out in 1999 and expanded the clientele of Turkish cuisine.

But of course, when we talk about Turkish cuisine, it is impossible not to mention the pioneer of pioneers, Hüseyin Özer's Sofra, which has been running in the heart of London since 1981. His first place in Covent Garden, made Turkish flavors known in London and won acclaim for its appetizers and kebabs, was followed by the posh Mayfair neighborhood in the following years. Özer was an interesting figure, once you met him, you would recognize him forever, identified with his Issey Miyake designer clothes he wore always wore like a uniform. At his signature restaurant Özer near BBC, he attracted crowds with his colorful personality. He personally took care of the guests and poured free champagne to those waiting in line. He was a pioneer in changing the fate of Turkish restaurants in London. In a sense, he introduced Turkish cuisine to the elite clientele.

In 2018, Umut Özkanca opened Rüya as a dream group, raising the bar a little more in the upper segment. Following this, Civan Er started the Turkish cuisine “chef restaurant” wave with Yeni Soho, acting as another game changer. Not many people know that Civan, who studied at Leith's, worked at Sofra in London for two years when he started his professional culinary life years ago and continued as the chef of Changa in Istanbul, a milestone restaurant where Peter Gordon acted as the consultant. Later he opened the award-winning Yeni Lokanta in Istanbul (2013), and carried the same concept to London, opening Yeni Soho in 2019. His line is totally different from the aforementioned others preceding him. He truly has a chef’s touch offering daily changing seasonal menus, his signature dishes like vegan “mantı” and olive oil braised beetroot with sour cherries have been repeatedly plagiarized by his fellows, moreover, he is in the kitchen in all shifts, lunch and dinner. Civan's pioneering story in initiating the new line of Turkish chefs in London and the level he has reached is worthy of a separate article. He was soon to be followed by chef Esra Muslu opening Zahter, and now by The Counter by chef Kemal Demirasal.

Thanks to them, tastes of Türkiye are represented in London in a whole new manner, changing the perception of Turkish cuisine in the now diverse London dining scene.

Fork of the Week: The latest place in the London Turkish cuisine scene is The Counter, opened last year by Kemal Demirasal, whom we all know from Alancha in Türkiye. When in London in June, a visit was a must, and I made a group of food writer friends, and we met in the cool neighborhood of Notting Hill. Our test team was Guy Dimond, who was the editor and feared critic of Time Out London's food section for years, Susan Low, former deputy editor of Delicious magazine and now Waitrose magazine, and Anne Faber, TV chef and blogger of Anne's Kitchen from Luxembourg. Unfortunately, Kemal was not in the kitchen that night, but Altuğ Kılıçarslan, the manager of the venue, took great care of us.

The Counter is a contemporary Ocakbaşı concept, featuring “mangal,” aka charcoal fireplace in an open kitchen behind the counter, where kebabs are grilled right in front of the diners, hence the name The Counter, aiming to introduce, an elevated understanding of the traditional “ocakbaşı” dining in the U.K. We focused on shared plates of mezes, and had only two main courses of satır minced meat kebab and Akçaabat meatballs. I must admit that I was skeptical about the white chocolate babaganoush, but it was not as strange as I expected. On the contrary, it was nicely smooth and creamy, as if made with “kaymak” aka clotted cream, with a slight sweetness coming from the white chocolate contrasting the bitterness of the eggplant. To be honest, this bold experiment was received with excitement at the table, especially by Guy Dimond. The boiled kibbeh with tahini sauce conquered hearts, while hummus, pomegranate salad and pepper “borani” were all appreciated individually, but it was the “Dolma Aşı” that attracted the most attention among the appetizers. The team couldn't hide their excitement when they saw for the first time that the vine leaves were not wrapped in the usual way, but used as if they were foraged greens or vegetables. Susan finished off the watermelon and cheese combo with roses and sumac; and Anne Faber and I were absolutely smitten with “Şalgam” cocktail, with mescal which went so well with the kebab.

For the ones who cannot make it to London, the tastes of two chefs will be in Türkiye: Avantgarde Yalıkavak in Bodrum will host The Counter by Kemal Demirasal, and Esra Muslu is bringing her Zahter London tastes to Istanbul at the newly opened Akdeniz by Esra Muslu at Çırağan Palace Kempinski.

Aylin Öney Tan,