I have vague memories of being a young teenager and being taken on a family holiday to Istanbul. At 14, it seemed like an entirely different world to my previous holiday experiences. The mesh of cultures, religions, and of east and west in complete contrast to everywhere I had been to then. The thing I remember most, however, was the food. Isn’t it nearly always?
I remember sitting out on a restaurant balcony with family friends, waiting with expectation for what dinner would bring. Out came large grill plates, still spluttering fat rendering against the hot slabs.The smell of charred meat and unfamiliar spices filling the air. Placed with aplomb amongst hummus, baba ghanoush and blistered red peppers. I set upon the kofta-style lamb with flatbreads like my life depended on it. I remember little else of the trip but I’ll always remember that lamb, and the aircon breaking that night. Meat sweats giving way to humidity-induced, night sweats.
Stylistically, Oklava may be as far away from that as possible. Both in terms of setting and referencing of the source material. The restaurant is housed on a tight corner property of a side street in the heart of Shoreditch. Large, open windows providing contrast to the tight confines and now-common barstool seats overlooking the mangal (open grill). It makes for an intimate but informal setting, which fits perfectly with the tone of the menu.
And indeed, what of the food? It is Turkish, without doubt, albeit with a Cypriot twist. There’s za’atar, feta, flatbreads (Pides) pomegranates. This may be far removed from my experience 16 years prior, but the heart remains. We peruse the selection of pides and snacking small plates whilst indulging in a lunchtime sumac & pomegranate martini. A fresh twist of lime and the slightly sharp pomegranate cutting through a sweet spiced rum. It’s not a lunchtime drink but it certainly wakes your sense like little else. A few colleagues look sceptically at the concept of sharing small sharing plates but reluctantly agree. There is no negotiating on flatbreads, however, and no room for compromise.
Spiced Bahrat bread with date laced butter is just the right side of sweet without approaching scone territory. A large, griddled slab of hellim (halloumi) comes speckled with oregano, and a coating of lemon and honey. It’s inauspicious to the eye but full of flavour. The standout, however, is a mulberry-glazed lamb bacon on toast. Still glistening and carrying the scent of a lamb Sunday roast. Small slivers of the essence of lamb that could easily give its piggy counterpart a run for its money.
We’re being peppered with dishes now and our small table for four is creaking under the pressure of trying to accommodate. A whole head of cauliflower, roasted in chilli, under a camouflage of parsley, red onion and pistachio is a wonderful testament to an underused veg. It breaks apart into vibrant, brick-red florets that tingle your mouth with a subtle heat.
The chilli-garlic chicken with za-atar is moist and tender with an all-out assault of intense flavour from chilli, garlic and the fresh herbs. It’s a departure from Turkish meat dishes served in other London venues, but the tenants of bold flavours are still there. We order some lahmacun for the table on the waiter’s recommendation. It’s a wafer-thin dough spread with a tomato and peppered with meat. Like a mini, Turkish pizza with a satisfying snap and a warming comfort to the sauce. I could comment on the Seftali kebabs, but there was no lying around the lack of willingness to share. They’re dispensed of with little conversation, as all good kebabs should be.
The table breathes a sigh of relief as we hoover up the last of the food. Finally, an inch of tablecloth is visible. We’re left to contemplate what’s just taken place. Despite the litter of plates and dishes, mains come in around the £13-16 mark with starters no higher than £6. Ignoring our alarming wine bill it makes for a reasonable tally if you’re aiming to share things like nibbles and vegetables.
It’s not quite teenage Dan’s memories of eating lamb koftas whilst overlooking the bay in Istanbul. Oklava aims to take those humble traditions and finesse them into something more elegant. The laid-back surrounds of the Shoreditch dining room disguise an intricate touch. It’s Turkish, but not as I knew it.
A Pide of Modern Turkey
Oklava nestles somewhere between refined dining and rustic, traditional Turkish charm. Those looking for a true meat feast style kebab will doubtless find the small plates too intricate. However, the cooking here is on point and still retains the vibe of what makes Turkish food so exciting.