Eat Here: Bala Baya, Southwark
In need of a new Middle Eastern joint in London? Bala Baya might just be the answer. A new restaurant by Eran Tibi, the former Head Chef of Zest at JW3, the restaurant brings a taste of Israel to London with some winning small plates, great cocktails and a slick, modern feel. Read on to discover why Bala Baya simply must be on your restaurant hit-list this year:
Bala Baya describes itself as “a Tel-Aviv inspired restaurant serving stunning food from midday to midnight”. What it doesn’t tell you, is that it has an undeniably sexy vibe, with a low-lit ambience, a casual, cool feel, and a vibrancy about the place thanks to an abundance of indoor plants, trendy deep house music and a very much “in the know” crowd. The space itself is amazing; hidden away in a side street of Southwark, the restaurant is located within the old arches, giving an incredibly cool industrial feel to the restaurant.
This is the kind of place you can visit all day; in the morning, for delicious baked goods, during lunch time, as a fact-paced kiosk serving freshly baked pitta bread (more on that later) and in the evening for a perfect date night with small plates. Head Chef, Eran Tibi, describes the restaurant as a poem to Tel Aviv, and you can really feel that. In fact, I think it’s more of a love letter; there’s love running through everything here, from the Bauhaus design of the restaurant, to the sheer pudgy, beauty of their baked breads, and the little touches of flavour on every dish – the whole place is a true act of love. I’m sold.
The food. Oh boy, the food. You’re in for a real treat, guys. I love the concept; little plates to share around the table, each one more exciting than the next. It’s the kind of food that puts a smile on your face, which you simply want to share with your loved ones, and that you won’t forget in a hurry. Inspired by the food of the Middle East, the cuisine is based on traditional, hearty flavours, but given a unique, modern twist. The food has its origins in Israeli fare, with lots of spices, herbs and grilling techniques, to bring out the very best of the produce.
We fill the table with an abundance of delicious, moreish small plates. It’s hard to choose between them – opt for 6-8 plates for two people at dinner, and dive in. Each dish sings with flavour and vibrancy; the Chickpea & Ox is good enough to make me break being vegetarian for the night, perfect with their incredibly good Israeli Salad with fresh tomatoes, cucumber and chunks of melty feta cheese.
Order the chickpea and expect a beautiful, rich dish of creamy homemade hummus, still warm, served with braised oxtail, which literally melts in the mouth – perfect for dipping in their wonderfully light pitta bread. The Fish Tartar is a must-order; the raw fish dish is the perfect marriage of red snapper, in the most delicious zingy lemon and lime dressing. You simply cannot miss the cauliflower in crumble, syrup and yoghurt, where cauliflower is very lightly fried, and given a hint of sweetness and crunch. The Calamari & Jam is also delicious – the crispy calamari is served with saffron and butternut jam, and lime aioli – and again, the perfect match of sweet and savoury to bring out the most divine flavours.
One of the star dishes of the evening is the Aubergine Tea with Milk, where aubergine is expertly cooked, until it melts, and given an unusual smoky flavour with a tea-smoking. Utter perfection. If you’re a meat lovers, then you must sample the Lamb & Dumplings, where lamb neck is served with quince, Persian dumplings, young pecorino and meat jus. The dish is seriously rich, full of flavour, and the meat is wonderfully soft after hours of cooking, matched with some delectable Gnocchi-like dumplings to give a perfectly soft, heavenly mouthful.
If there’s one thing you cannot miss at Bala Baya, it’s dessert. These aren’t just any desserts. Oh no. The desserts here are out-of-this-world good; the kind of puddings that will seduce even those without a sweet tooth. The two desserts we sampled, I think, will become iconic in London (not least on Instagram) – mark my words. You simply must try the Burnt Babka, where a smeared chocolate and hazelnut spread in placed in the most wonderfully light pastry, served with stewed plums, caramelised pecans and whisked anglaise. The babka has an incredibly soft, delicious texture, that you cannot stop eating. Another totally winning dessert is the Tahini, Banana, Tonka and Pistachio Cheesecake, which is served with biscuits, caramel, mascarpone and praline. No words can do justice for how delicious this cheesecake is, with a divine mix of sweet, caramelized banana, nutty tahini and the cool, almost sour flavour of the cream cheese. It is the thing of dreams. Take my word for it: you must order it.
There’s a great selection of Middle Eastern-inspired soft drinks and cocktails at Bala Baya. They make all their own syrups for the drinks, so they’re wonderfully fresh. For something special, try their Gazoz drink with fresh syrup, which comes in grapefruit and thyme or quince and fennel flavours. And to mix it up, try the more adult version with either Bombay Sapphire gin or Ketel One vodka. Delicious. If you’d like a bespoke cocktail, try the Artichoke Julep with Cynar, pink grapefruit juice and grapefruit sherbet – it’s a real winner.
If you haven’t noticed, I’m was pretty mad about Bala Baya. The food is served with such impressive skill and attention to detail, you cannot help but fall in love with it. It’s the kind of food that speaks to your soul, not just your tummy. What’s more, the restaurant has a special All-Day dining menu before 6pm, with 2 small plates, a salad, drink and pitta bread for £20, so everyone’s a winner. And if that’s not enough, they also serve brunch on weekends, with dishes such as Shakshuka, Burnt Pitta Banana Bread and Apple Fritters on the menu. You’ll know where to find me next weekend…
Bala Baya is at Arch 25 Old Union Yard Arches, 229 Union St, London SE1 0LR