Zahter, 30-32 Foubert’s Place, London W1F 7PS (zahter.co.uk). Hot and cold
meze £9-£18, platters £18-£42, desserts £8-£9, wines from £29
The Instagram accounts I follow, like the gummy jars of condiments I collect in my fridge, are a hot mess: chefs showing off what they knocked up last night; carpetbagging food “influencers” whose brass neck enthrals but doesn’t influence me; jazz pianists offering useful tips; Grace Dent, because who wouldn’t want a window on her fabulous life? By far the most entertaining is @yemelerdeyizcom, a Turkish food and drink account, which posts endless videos of just two things: lamb kebabs being made, and portioned rounds of baklava being finished and boxed. The latter are always beautiful. There’s the ladling of the steaming syrup, the shiny golden curve of the filo pastry and the brilliant green of the crushed pistachios. Watching these videos is not the most embarrassing online displacement activity for a middle-aged man, but it’s bloody close. Best to have it out there.
Like the tragic rainbow chaser that I am, I had always assumed this to be the very best baklava possible: the platonic ideal of the polyamorous marriage of pistachios, filo and syrup, and one that I should aspire to experience. Then I was served the baklava at Zahter, a new restaurant off London’s Carnaby Street which re-examines the Turkish repertoire. It’s not Instagram beautiful or it may be, but in the low light it’s impossible to see. (Go check my Insta where I am @jayrayner1, and I will have posted a picture.) But by God, it’s good; so good that its gorgeousness could not be relegated to the end of this column when I might be short on space.
There is none of the mouth-drying, friable confetti of overbaked filo. It is soft and luscious. Too often baklava can be cloyingly oversweet, like the maker has some side hustle knocking out insulin and is looking to recruit new customers. This is perfectly balanced so the flavour of the pistachio is also allowed its voice and, just to be on the safe side, there is a quenelle of thick cream. It is quite simply the best baklava I have ever eaten.
It is a massive symphonic coda, a big thump of brass and strings at the end of a meal which, to extend a metaphor until it snaps, was big on cheery melodies and harmonies. Zahter, the Turkish name for a variety of wild thyme, occupies a tottering corner site with a cheery view of the street life outside. It is the first standalone venture from Turkish chef Esra Muslu. After training in Australia, she ran a series of restaurants in Istanbul before being recruited as head chef of Soho House in the city. From there she moved to a similar role at the company’s outpost in London’s Shoreditch and then to Ottolenghi in Spitalfields.
The menu, built around both a wood and a charcoal-burning oven, is a wandering journey across Turkey. From the south make sure to order the stuffed globe artichoke. Also make sure to bring an enthusiastic friend to help you eat it. The £16 price tag looks chunky in the extreme until it arrives. It is a very large, mature flower and a victory of a day’s preparation. After simmering in acidulated water, the choke is removed, the leaves put back in place on to the heart and trimmed. While it is still warm, it is bathed in a fragrant lemony dressing. Then comes a stuffing of rice, spiced with cinnamon and allspice, lemon juice and handfuls of fresh green herbs. The stuffing is pushed in between every leaf, into every nook and cranny. Finally, it’s piled with more chopped green herbs, toasted almonds and shiny pomegranate seeds. There is a still-warm wedge of roasted lemon on the top for an extra squeeze. It’s one of those utterly engrossing and formidable dishes, which draws you in one leaf at a time.
That and the baklava would make a sustaining dinner, but I understand my responsibilities. There must be more. We have an ovenware dish of tiger prawns roasted in frothing lakes of garlic butter, hefty with Aleppo pepper, which leaves juices behind that demand to be mopped away with their airy breads. We have roasted and crusted chicken livers under bales of fresh green herbs. Only a fava bean purée with grape slices that have been doused in the anise-boosted spirit raki doesn’t quite hit the spot, being overly sweet. For balance, we turn to the section of the menu headed platters, and a quite magnificent dish of dense lamb kofta with white beans, fresh red chilli and further handfuls of flat leaf, all piled on to a flat bread cheerfully absorbing the very essence of what has been shovelled on top of it.
Then comes half a roasted quince, and finally that baklava with a capital B. Zahter has been open only a few weeks when I visit, and is trading into difficult circumstances, but still has a youthful buzz and assuredness to it. It feels like a mature restaurant though not, it must be said, one aimed necessarily at a mature clientele. In this week’s Observer Food Monthly my regular column is a plea for new restaurants to employ someone who is at least in their 50s to help judge the environment they are building. I can’t pretend. Everything I whinge about in that column is present here at Zahter. I do have to use my iPhone torch to read the menu. The piped music and the hard surfaces make for a clattering acoustic. The upstairs dining room is reached via vertiginous stairs. For good measure the tables are too small for the way in which the kitchen sends out the dishes all at once. We end up with our wine and water bottle on the floor next to us.
If Zahter doesn’t want older gits like me in their restaurant, whining about the lighting and the sound and the table size, then fine. But there’s an issue. Zahter’s food is great. There’s also value here, but it is not cheap. The short wine list starts at £29 a bottle before heading into the 30s and beyond. As the information at the top shows, the dishes are, shall we say, boldly priced. The final £150 bill does not feel extortionate for this food and this service and this location. But perhaps turn the music down and the lights up a little so you don’t risk excluding a whole demographic who may best be able to afford it. My motives are pure. I really do want as many people as possible to enjoy that fabulous baklava.
Nepalese chef Santosh Shah, who won a huge following when he made it to the finals of MasterChef: The Professionals in 2020, is releasing his first cookbook. Ayla: A Feast of Nepali Dishes from Terai, Hills and the Himalayas includes recipes for chicken momos with ginger and chilli, plantain curry, river fish with mustard and onion sauce as well as a host of spice mixes, pickles and chutneys. It’s published on 3 February. Find out more here.
On 22 January the legendary jazz club Ronnie Scott’s is hosting a musical instrument amnesty. From 10am until 3pm anyone can drop off unloved or unwanted instruments to the club on London’s Frith Street; from plastic recorders through to violins, brass instruments and anything in between (but not pianos for storage reasons). In partnership with Julian Lloyd Webber’s charity, Sistema England and the Ronnie Scott’s Charitable Foundation, they will then be donated to school-age children both in the UK and elsewhere. Potential donors wanting more information should email [email protected].
Only A Pavement Away, the charity offering hospitality skills and training to prison leavers, veterans and those facing homelessness, has announced it will be opening training cafés in 10 UK cities by the end of 2022. All those who staff them will receive qualifications, with the aim of getting 250 people into hospitality industry jobs by the end of the year. Visit onlyapavementaway.co.uk.