Countless Turkish restaurants throughout the city serve up food of a quality that belies the often modest surroundings, so what to expect when a little Ottoman bling is introduced into the mix?
It’s hard to be a palace on Camden High Street. This joint doesn’t look too opulent from the outside (how can you compete with the noble orange and white of the neighbouring Sainsbury’s Local?), plumping for a pale sign with silver lettering above a black frontage. Inside they’ve made a marked effort to usher you psychologically away from gritty Camden: brown, black and maroon predominate, the chairs and tables are reassuringly heavy, there are gold-touched ornaments and intricately cut wooden screens and paneling dotted about. It's hard to see where pide and kebabs would fit in here.
A strange area out the back is covered by a sloping roof, above which is the real, semi-transparent ceiling. It’s done as if to create an outside-inside feeling, but really just has you wondering what’s going on. The staff are smartly dressed, though that’s usually the case even in casual Turkish restaurants.
It’s a little flat, perhaps down to the discrepancy between the reputation of the cuisine and the try-hard surroundings. Moreover, the site is rather rambling, so you don’t really feel like you’re part of one integrated whole.
How are they going to make the food as fancy as everything else? Presentation, apparently. Starters don’t come on your average plate, but rather on double-sided rectangular platters; the kind you might have bought a long time ago with dinner parties in mind, then donated to a charity shop. To one side is a basic mixed-leaf salad. This in itself is not so welcome – what’s wrong with the usual selection of parsley, onion, carrot, tomato, cucumber and mooli that usually comes with Turkish meals? That's far ‘fancier’ than what is served.
The grilled squid (izgara kalamar - £5.95) is decent, and more smoky than it first appears. Fried lamb’s liver is better (arnavut cigeri - 5.50), and comes accompanied by onion and parsley as it should be. The ‘truffled onion purée’ that's mentioned on the menu isn't actually detectable, however. The famously-monikered dish of imam bayildi (‘the imam fainted’, more or less) is here described as ‘aubergine stuffed and baked with tomato onion relish with cacik’ (2.95). In spite of the legend, it's seriously lacking in flavour.
Tavuk gögsü (£9.95) would usually appear on the dessert section of a Turkish menu – a delicious milk-based concoction made with shredded chicken – but here it is described as 'za'atar chicken with green lentils, baby spinach and chestnut stew'. This surprisingly light plateful is perhaps the best dish on the menu. The other main – a classic Iskender kebab – suffers thanks to drenched bread beneath the meat and yoghurt; other restaurants manage to keep it intact and crispy. The meat and tomato sauce is good, but the bread undermines the dish somewhat.
They offer the usual range of hot and cold mezze (though, judging by previous efforts, they may not be presented in the usual manner), as well as five ‘healthy option’ mezze - one of which is the tasteless imam bayildi, which may go some way to explaining its blandness. Two from this selection sound particularly good value – ‘Jerusalem artichokes with pearl onion and truffle oil’ and ‘globe artichokes with seasonal vegetables and pickled lemon’ (both £2.95) – but it’s hard to tell if they’d be similarly scuppered by healthiness.
There’s also a specifically ‘vegetarian’ section of the menu. Veggies are usually well served for mezze and starters in Turkish restaurants, but less so when it comes to mains. Here you can get veggie pide (£7.95), moussaka (£9.50), stuffed aubergine (£9.50) and a version of manti stuffed with feta and spinach, served with a tomato and yoghurt sauce (£9.50).
A Viña Plata Bonarda-Malbec (£14.95) is tangy – it might be better to go out on a limb for the Yakut (£15.50) from Anatolia, seeing as it's only slightly more expensive. A bellini (prosecco and peach juice - £6.50) on arrival may seem like a good idea but they taste like the leftovers from a tin of canned peaches, so probably best avoided.
The Last Word
Ultimately, the food is not as good as in many other, more down-to-earth Turkish restaurants. The presentation tries to elevate dishes that really shouldn’t need anything other than proper cooking.