Under no apparent guidance my Dad bought me Turkish Delights, a recipe book by John Gregory-Smith, for Christmas. Smith explains the differences between regional cuisine across Turkey and offers a snapshot into the diverse recipes of the country. The more I read, the more I wanted to visit and explore Turkey’s rich culinary history for myself. The book evoked my desire to go to Turkey and then, last week, Oklava cemented it.
Opened in Autumn 2015, Oklava is the brainchild of Selin Kiazim, jointly operated with Laura Christie. Kiazim is well established within the industry. The former head chef at Richard Gordon’s sister restaurant Kopapa, she then went on to host multiple pop ups and held a six month residency at Trip Kitchen, Haggerston. Kiazim crossed paths with Christie, former operations manager of the Salt Yard group, following her pop up at Ember Yard. Despite Christie being on holiday at the time of the pop up, the pair met for a coffee afterwards and the makings of Oklava were born.
‘Oklava’ in Turkish is a traditional rolling pin used for making bread, pastries and pide, a boat shaped Turkish pizza, that has a section devoted to it on the menu at the restaurant. Situated on Luke Street, on a quiet back road in Shoreditch, Oklava is a modern day version of a neighbourhood restaurant. Inside it is small and intimate. Low copper lighting is mixed with a palette of white and muted greys. The interior, whilst modern and sophisticated, replicates the warmth and romance of a classic bistro. Comparatively it reminds me of a cross between Bernardi’s and Barrafina. The most romantic spot in the restaurant – up at the bar- where you can watch the theatre of service from the open kitchen.
Our waitress was welcoming, proactive and knowledgeable – recommending with enthusiasm her favourite dishes. This high level of service reflects Kiazim and Christie’s wealth of experience within the industry and more broadly the shift away from stuffy, fine dining to an attentive yet relaxed form of eating. It is modern and on point.
The wine list is focussed on wines from Turkey, yet quality, rather than geographical location is what drives the selection. We choose a bottle of the Chamlija Riesling that was bold in every sense, from the quirky label of a woman’s face to its punchy grapefruit flavour. A rare wine, dry, yet incredibly fruity. It complimented the food well and I hope to drink it again.
To start we had the Baharat Bread with Medjool Date Butter. The combination of the spiced bread with the sweet creaminess of the butter was exceptional. The balance, of sweet, saltiness, spice and starch, whetted the appetite. The butter needs to come with a warning – highly addictive – if left unattended, I could eat a worryingly large amount. Forever trying to guess how things are made, we came to the conclusion that the dates may be macerated in sherry…? If so, could butter get any better?
Following the bread, a succession of delicious sharing plates arrived. The Chilli Roast Cauliflower was insanely good. The cauliflower appeared to have been blanched and then marinaded in a spice mix before roasting in the proud stone oven that presides at a corner of the galley kitchen. The flavour of the chilli wasn’t merely a crumb – it seemed to have been absorbed totally by the cauliflower. Combined with the acidity of red onion, fresh parsley and the richness of pistachio; it was a beautiful dish.
Before Oklava I had never eaten pide and I was excited to try it. Given it was to be my first, I should have really opted for the traditional Lahmacun, topped with spiced ground meat, however the Braised Octopus pide sounded too interesting not to order. The interesting combination was delicious. The olives and pickled capers adding a welcome piquancy that married the meaty octopus with the honey and ricotta. Less ricotta would have enhanced the flavour of the octopus, that being said it was quickly and eagerly devoured.
Next a special of Squid with Chickpeas and Morcilla. The classic pairing of chickpeas and morcilla was reinvented with the addition of warming spice. Delicious but the squid was not the star of the show. Its flavour was lost amongst the bolder ingredients.
Our final two savoury dishes were the Chilli-Garlic Chicken and Baked Lamb Fat Potatoes, The chicken, referred to affectionately at work as ‘crack chicken’, because of its unreal za’atar crumb, lived up to its reputation. Dipped in a lime mayonnaise, it epitomises chargrilled chicken, sticky and caramelised.
The flavour of the lamb fat potatoes was mind boggling. Oklava have managed to create a potato that tastes like the juices left at the bottom of a tin after you have roasted a joint of lamb. This was ingenious, especially combined with the sherry vinegar caramel and the richness of the runny duck egg yolk. The classic presentation of the dish was unexpected – the flavours triumphed. To finish, upon recommendation of our waitress we shared the Pistachio Sponge with Caramelised White Chocolate. You cannot go wrong with burnt white chocolate, the adult version of a Caramac. Elevated beyond the realms of guilty indulgence by the presence of barbecued quince, a crisp shard of filo and the delicate sponge.Put simply, Oklava is making Turkish food cool. It is opening up our understanding of the diverse cuisine, beyond the realm of the traditional kebab shop. Outstanding food that also broadens your knowledge, now that is something to celebrate.
Oklava, 74 Luke Street, London EC2A 4PY ££ 9/10