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 jars of gummy condiments I collect in my fridge, are a real mess: chefs showing off what they fattened last night; the carpet-bagging food “influencers” whose brass neck fascinates me but does not influence me; jazz pianists offering helpful advice; Grace Dent, because who wouldn’t want a window into 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 skewers being made and portions of baklava being finished and canned. These are always beautiful. There’s the ladle of steaming syrup, the shiny golden curve of filo pastry, and the shiny green of crushed pistachios. Watching these videos isn’t the most embarrassing online travel activity for a middle-aged man, but it’s damn close. Best to have it there.
Like the tragic rainbow hunter that I am, I’ve always assumed this was the best baklava possible: the platonic ideal of the polyamorous marriage of pistachios, filo, and syrup, and the one I should aspire to live. Then I was served the baklava at Zahter, a new restaurant near Carnaby Street in London that revisits the Turkish repertoire. It’s not pretty on Instagram or maybe, but in the dark it’s impossible to see. (Go check my Insta where I am @jayrayner1, and I’ll have posted a photo.) But by God, it’s okay; so good that its splendor could not be relegated to the end of this column when I might run out of space.
There’s none of the crumbly, drying confetti of overcooked filo. It’s sweet and delicious. Too often, the baklava can be too sweet, as if the manufacturer is struggling to eliminate insulin and is looking to recruit new customers. It’s perfectly balanced so the pistachio flavor is also allowed in her undertone and, just to be sure, there’s a quenelle of heavy cream. It is simply the best baklava I have ever eaten.
It’s a massive symphonic coda, a big bang of brass and strings at the end of a meal that, to prolong a metaphor until it snaps, was rich in joyful melodies and harmonies. Zahter, the Turkish name for a variety of wild thyme, occupies a rickety corner site with a cheerful view of the street life outside. This is Turkish chef Esra Muslu’s first standalone business. 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 took up a similar position at the company’s outpost at Shoreditch in London and later at Ottolenghi in Spitalfields.
The map, built around both a wood oven and a charcoal oven, is a wandering through Turkey. From the south, be sure to order the stuffed artichoke. Also be sure to bring along an enthusiastic friend to help you eat it. The £16 price tag seems bulky in the extreme until it arrives. It is a very large mature flower and a win of a day’s preparation. After simmering in acidulated water, the bottleneck is removed, the leaves put back on the heart and trimmed. While still warm, it is bathed in a fragrant lemon vinaigrette. Next comes a rice stuffing, spiced with cinnamon and allspice, lemon juice and handfuls of fresh green herbs. The stuffing is pushed between each sheet, into every nook and cranny. Finally, it’s piled high with more chopped green herbs, toasted almonds, and shiny pomegranate seeds. There’s a still-warm roasted lemon wedge on top for extra pressure. This is one of those utterly captivating and terrific dishes, which draws you in one leaf at a time.
That and the baklava would make a support dinner, but I understand my responsibilities. There must be more. We have an oven-baked dish of tiger prawns roasted in foaming lakes of garlic butter, puffed up with Aleppo pepper, that leave behind juices that beg to be soaked up with their airy buns. We have roasted and crusted chicken livers under bales of fresh green herbs. Only mashed beans with slices of grapes that have been sprinkled in anise raki don’t quite do the trick, being too sweet. For balance, we turn to the menu-head platter section, and a rather gorgeous dish of dense lamb kefta with white beans, fresh red chili, and other handfuls of flat leaves, all piled high. on a flatbread happily absorbing the very essence of whatever was shoveled onto it.
Next is a roasted half quince, and finally this baklava with a capital B. Zahter has only been open for a few weeks when I visit, and is trading in difficult circumstances, but still has a youthful buzz and assurance. It looks like a mature restaurant but not, it must be said, necessarily intended for a mature clientele. In this week Monthly Food Observer my regular column is a plea for new restaurants to employ someone in their 50s or older to help judge the environment they build. I can’t pretend. Everything I complain about in this column is present here at Zahter. I have to use my iPhone torch to read the menu. Ambient music and hard surfaces create slamming acoustics. The upstairs dining room is accessible by steep stairs. For good measure, the tables are too small for the way the kitchen sends out the dishes all at once. We end up with our bottle of wine and water on the floor next to us.
If Zahter doesn’t want old assholes like me in their restaurant complaining about the lighting, the sound, and the size of the table, then fine. But there is a problem. Zahter’s food is excellent. There’s value here too, but it’s not cheap. The short wine list starts at £29 a bottle before heading into the 1930s and beyond. As the information at the top shows, the dishes are, shall we say, audaciously priced. The final £150 bill doesn’t seem outrageous for this food, service and location. But maybe turn down the music and turn up the lights a bit so you don’t risk excluding a whole demographic that could best afford it. My motives are pure. I really want as many people as possible to enjoy this fabulous baklava.
Nepalese chef Santosh Shah, who achieved huge success when he qualified for the final of MasterChef: the professionals in 2020, released his first cookbook. Ayla: A Feast of Nepali Dishes from the Terai, Hills and Himalayas includes recipes for ginger and chili chicken momos, plantain curry, river fish with mustard and onion sauce plus a host of spice mixes, pickles and chutneys . It is published on February 3. Learn more here.
On January 22, the mythical jazz club by Ronnie Scottorganizes an amnesty for musical instruments. From 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., anyone can drop off unloved or unwanted instruments at the Frith Street club in London; from plastic recorders to violins, brass instruments and everything in between (but not pianos for storage reasons). In partnership with Julian Lloyd Webber’s Charity, England system and the Ronnie Scott’s Charitable Foundation, they will then be donated to school-aged children in the UK and elsewhere. Potential donors wishing more information should email [email protected].
Only A Pavement Away, the charity which provides hospitality skills and training to people leaving prison, war veterans and homeless people, has announced that it will open training cafes in 10 UK cities in by the end of 2022. Everyone who employs them will receive qualifications, with the aim of bringing 250 people into the hospitality industry by the end of the year. Visit onlyapavementaway.co.uk.