Upper Street’s diverse and dynamic dining scene perennially impresses, and long-established Pasha fits right in. The Turkish cuisine, with nods to neighbouring countries, is hearty, traditional and reasonably priced. In contrast, the room styling is modern and fairly minimal with only the lightest of Ottoman touches. It suit N1’s chattering classes who gather in large numbers, and rightly so.
There’s been a Turkish on the site for 30 years. Once, it rejoiced in the cheesy name of Sultan’s Delight and was a visual riot of Turkish clichés. It became Pasha over ten years ago, and a revamp in 2008 gave it the agreeable boutique hotel look it currently sports. All is cream, beige and brown in the long, narrow, 70-cover room (plus al fresco dining for eight on the pavement when weather permits). The rear section with its vaulted glass roof would be particularly pleasant in summer. Turkish touches are limited to ornate candlesticks and a few wall hangings including a sumptuous jacket of the kind worn by Turkish boys when they get the chop - which could put you right off your lamb shish.
Even on a weeknight, business is brisk. There’s a United Nations of diners of all ages, casually but rather well turned out, and animatedly conversational; a microcosm of Islington’s ‘haves’, in other words. Service is friendly, informative and ever so professional; these proud young men of Turkish descent are career waiters, not out-of-work actors. Commendably, there’s no pushing of extras, in fact, quite the reverse with diners being advised their main course may be more than enough without side orders (and so it proves).
The setting may be modern but the food is traditional, with whacking great portions of well-realised classics from Turkey and her neighbours.
Mixed mezze (£6.95) is the best way to sample most of the starters. The taramasalata is outstanding, a pale, fishy, super-smooth, billowing cloud of deliciousness. Humous is almost as good with great earthy, chickpea flavour. Spicy couscous is shot through with spring onion, diced tomato and mild spice. Tabouleh salad is based on masses of fresh, chopped, flat-leaf parsley, and the inclusion of pomegranate seeds works a treat. Tzatziki scores too – it’s deeply minty with gorgeously sour yoghurt.
The mezze includes hot components, too. Kofte is irresistably juicy, meaty, perfectly seasoned minced lamb with moreishly charred edges. Borek are little samosa-shaped pastries featuring the crispest of pastry with creamy, salty feta and daisy-fresh parsley within. Light, grease-free fritters with a nicely squidgy, delicately flavoured, shredded courgette middle complete an outstanding selection.
After such a top-notch starter, it is perhaps inevitable the mains will be an anti-climax, but only negligibly so. Iskender (£11.50) features well-flavoured but slightly dry minced chicken shish and faultlessly meaty, slightly-charred, juicy, minced lamb. The accompanying tomato sauce isn’t bad, and a splodge of yoghurt adds a refreshingly sour note. It’s a huge portion and is homely and comforting rather than thrilling.
Grilled sea bream (£14.95) is pure simplicity, and brings back memories of Mediterranean holidays. There’s plenty of succulent white flesh on the whole fish. Chewy rather than crisp, but well-flavoured roast new potatoes and a fresh, crunchy salad of diced cucumber, tomato and onion make up a healthy plateful.
Puddings – if you can squeeze one in after those gargantuan portions – are more international with apple crumble, cheesecake and chocolate brownie getting a look-in. Turkey is adequately represented too; Ottoman kadayif (£4.65) is three little Shredded Wheat-style pastries stuffed with honey and nuts, accompanied by a scoop of cinnamon ice cream.
Speaking of ice cream, there’s an interesting selection of ices and sorbets (£3.95). The cinnamon is clearly flavoured and perfectly textured. Toffee has good flavour too but contains far too many chunks of ice.
The global wine list features 10 whites, 11 reds, a couple of rosés, and half a dozen champagnes and sparkling wines. Two whites, two reds and rosé are available by the glass.
Turkish wines don’t always win plaudits and, sure enough, neither the white nor red sampled thrill. Cankaya (£4.50/£14.95) is slightly citrusy and without much finish, a bit like a weak Chardonnay. Yakut (same price) is overridingly tannic. The house options are better and cheaper; Moreau Rouge (£3.95/£14.95) is a straightforward but deeply cherry-flavoured red, whilst Chardonnay Cornivus (same price) is dry but with a hint of honey or butterscotch, plenty good enough for a house wine. There’s a fair range of reasonably price cocktails and mocktails, apéritifs and digestifs, teas and coffees. Really good filter coffee (£1.95) provides a delicious finale.
The Last Word
Pasha has been around for quite a while, and knows what it’s doing. Some of the food reaches ambrosial heights, and portion sizes reflect traditional Turkish generosity - £40 a head should see you hiccuping happily out of the door. This is yet another venue for lucky locals to enjoy.