A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of taking a two week holiday in the absolutely stunning Turkish city of Bodrum. The weather was scorching, the sea more azure than you could believe, and the people were some of the friendliest I have ever met. I remember an awful lot about that holiday, but one of the things I don’t have much memory of, is the food.
As is painfully common, the hotel catered to the visiting Western tourists, who enjoy nothing more than an all-you-can eat buffet where they can pile their plates high and put back on all that weight that they worked so hard to get rid of before going on the holiday anyway. As a result, my experience of genuine Turkish food is somewhat non-existent and skewed by the kebab shops that you often find yourself in after a few too many on a night out. It is therefore of no surprise that a trip to contemporary Turkish restaurant Oklava in Shoreditch has been on the bucket list for a while now.
Oklava opened its doors back in 2015 and is the brain child of Selin Kiazim and Laura Christie (who also runs Linden Stores in Islington). Selin Kiazim is rapidly gaining a much deserved reputation for her fantastic cooking skills; in 2017 she made it through to the finals of the Great British Menu for her dessert paying homage to Wimbledon tennis champion Annabel Croft. I, however, first came across Oklava, and indeed Selin, at a previous job where her ethical principles and commitment to food sustainability shone through in the opening of the restaurant.
Fast forward to a rainy Saturday in May 2018, over two and a half years since the opening of Oklava, and I finally find myself sat at the counter drooling over the menu. Sitting at the counter may mean you have one of the best seats in the house and an unbeatable view into the kitchen, but the real benefit of counter dining is that the chefs can’t escape you and your questions. So, obviously, we took full advantage of this and quizzed head chef Nick Mattinson on the menu and asked him to recommend us some of his favourite dishes.
Top of the menu, before you even get to the food, a blood orange fizz aperitif caught my eye and quickly turned my plans for a dry Saturday into a wet one. My “my will power is stronger than yours” friend plumped for the virgin apple and cardamom sour cocktail. This was made by shaking apple tea with cardamom syrup and lime, and served in a glass with a spiced and salted rim. We then reeled off the list of dishes that we wanted to try to the waitress, sat back, drank deeply and waited with anticipation for the food to be brought out.
Under the snacks section of the menu, there is an ingredient that must be regarded of as simply criminal to go into a Turkish (or Cypriot) restaurant and not order. Grilled hellim. Now, hellim is actually the Turkish word for halloumi, which just so happens to be the Cypriot word for this wonderful, salty cheese. So, why the different names? Well, it’s all political and too complicated to get into here. It is safe to say, however, that halloumi is a cheese at the very heart of Cyprus’s heritage, in fact the country is currently in the process of applying for a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status for it. If successful, this would mean that halloumi could only be produced in Cyprus and anything similar produced elsewhere would have to use a different name.
Over the counter came a small bowl of two hot slices of hellim, lathered in honey, lemon and oregano. Griddled to perfection, evenly coloured a glorious nut-brown, I sliced my piece of hellim across each griddle line and chased that sticky-sweet glaze around the bowl.
Two market specials were on offer on our visit; one a main course that I can’t remember, the other a snack of toast covered in what I believe was a muhammara paste. We ordered the market special toast over the baharat spiced bread on the menu in order to sample the roasted red pepper and walnut spread which neither of us had tried before. Combining the walnuts with the roasted red peppers resulted in what should by all accounts have been a relatively sweet spread, into a savoury one. The addition of a few chilli flakes gave a final little kick to this visually dull but flavourful dish.
We went against the head chef’s recommendation of the imam bayildi – a stuffed aubergine with yoghurt and flatbreads – and instead plumped for the chilli roasted cauliflower dish. Personally, I consider myself to be an aubergine fanatic. I eat it everyday (pretty much) and it’s the first vegetable I pick up when shopping, however, in desperate pursuit of not always picking what you know and love, I conceded to the cauliflower option. Perhaps the most amount of food I’ve seen piled onto such a small plate, the chunks of roasted cauliflower were hidden beneath a foliage of parsley, red onions and pistachios. Now this dish was hot, surprisingly hot. This should really have been obvious from the name, but clearly having let that pass over my head, it certainly should have been obvious from the fire-red colour that the cauliflower chunks had turned following a thorough marinading in an array of chilli and spices.
Back on track with our chef-recommended dishes, the pide of octopus and ricotta was next to arrive. Apparently this is the best-seller at Oklava and it is little wonder why. The flatbread was just the right amount of charred on the edges while the inside was still soft and fluffy and soaked up some of the delicious marinade from the octopus. I have eaten so many good octopus dishes in recent years, that it’s getting harder and harder to find that thing that makes the dish stand out, but this really was delicious.
It came with a side salad of red onion, parsley, green olives and leaves which was a tad on the oily side, but I guess that’s what the ends of the pide are there for, to soak up this pool of Mediterranean flavours.
Our last savoury choice was the dish designed to make you re-think the late night kebab. The Seftali kebab is essentially a sausage mix without the skin and this particular version was made of minced lamb combined with onions, parsley and a variety of herbs. In pursuit of higher knowledge, I tried to find out what Seftali means. A quick Google translate told me it means peach in English. Personally, I can’t see the link but the musings of the internet world suggest that the texture of the Seftali kebab is similar to the texture of the peach. If you say so Google.
Back to the kebab. Yes, the meat was tasty and certainly far more moist than one from your local kebab shop, but for me there was no real “wow” factor. It was sat on an unidentified flatbread and piled high with yet more parsley and slices of red onion. I think it’s fair to say that at this point, we had had enough of those particular ingredients to last a lifetime. Personally, I would have gone for the far more interesting sounding quail dish, or even the lamb kofte, neither of which mentioned either parsley or red onion in the description.
Having munched our way through a selection of dishes varying from the heavenly to the underwhelming, the ability to manage one of the puddings was called into question. Apparently having overheard us um-ing and ah-ing over the decision, head chef Nick told us to share the Kunefe as it takes 15 minutes to cook following being ordered. This would the give us plenty of time for a rest and to enjoy a Turkish coffee, which we did.
Turkish coffee is one of the few food and drink related memories I have from that holiday. Brewed from very, very finely ground coffee beans, the powder is left in the cup of coffee when served. This means that only around two thirds of your cup of coffee is actually drinkable; the powder forming a lovely sludge in the bottom of the cup which is unsurprisingly pretty unpleasant if you take a sip of it. History says that the grounds left in the cup could be used for fortune-telling but with no one around skilled in the practice of divination, we left the grounds for the bin.
Fifteen minutes down the line and a sweet smell of hot pastry drifted under our noses. A nest of crispy kadayif pastry (similar to finely shredded filo pastry) which had been soaked in an orange blossom syrup, hid a layer of molten cheese and was topped with a bright green line of chopped pistachios. We dug our spoons in and sat in raptures as the sticky, sweet and cheesy mix ran over every taste bud, causing salavation of an unacceptable level. After several rich mouthfuls of this heady concoction, I took a daring move and poured the side of blood orange sorbet over the top. A light and refreshing contrast ensued and enabled us to easily gobble us the rest.
Two and a half years is a long time to wait to visit a restaurant, especially one where the chef has gained national recognition for her culinary skills. The build up and the anticipation mean that you put more and more expectation on your visit to deliver everything that you think and hope it will. For me, this build up certainly did not result in an anti-climax; the sheer flavour delivered by the hellim and the octopus pide will linger in my memory for a long time to come, while the chilli kick of that cauliflower is hard to forget. I personally don’t think that the Seftali kebab has changed my perception of what is probably Turkey’s most well-known dish, but anyone who can combine sweet pastry with two varieties of orange and then stuff a load of cheese into the middle of it and bake it, well that person is nothing short of a genius.