Seeing brains on a menu is usually a good sign. It’s not intrinsically delicious in the way liver or pancreas is – it doesn’t really taste of much on its own – but it suggests a chef with a certain swagger, someone not afraid to throw down a gauntlet, challenge their customers a little.
I also like to think it’s part of a slow erosion of that very British mentality that we’re somehow above eating perfectly edible parts of the animals we slaughter, and which we end up eating anyway in the form of sausages and chicken nuggets.
In the event, the brains at Bala Baya weren’t great, rather meek and spongy, served with Lebanese pearls so overpoweringly lemony they must have known the offal wasn’t up to much. But I was right about the swagger. The man in charge is Eran Tibi, a former protégé of one Yotam Ottolenghi. He describes his Middle-Eastern sharing plates as a “poem to Tel Aviv”, and they have the vibrancy and inventiveness to just about justify that slightly absurd epithet. The menu shares Middle-Eastern staples with Ottolenghi, but the food here is earthier and spicier and punchier, and while I’d still go with Ottolenghi if you made me choose between the two, Bala Baya is definitely worth a visit in its own right.
It’s housed under the Southwark railway arches in a unit that reminds me of Mother Kelly’s in Bethnal Green, or The Frog in Shoreditch (mostly because they happen to be near where I live; substitute gentrified railway arches in whatever fancy corner of London you live). But instead of celebrating the squalor of living beneath a major public transport route, Bala Baya makes an effort to spruce the place up. It has a chrome open-kitchen on the lower floor, Bauhaus-inspired furniture, lots of greenery and some vaguely LA-inspired decorative breeze-blocks.
Bala Baya (a name I struggle to pronounce every time I try to recommend it to someone, which I’ve been doing a lot over the last week. It’s taken from Ladino, an ancient Judeo-Spanish language still spoken in some small communities around Israel, and roughly translates as “Mother’s House”) is also a bakery in the morning and a quick-turnaround “pitta kiosk” in the afternoon. At night it takes on a slightly clubby vibe, but hear me out: it’s actually really cool. It was rammed on a Tuesday evening and the tightly packed tables make you appreciate the background noise.
The dishes, of course, come in whatever order they happen to appear from the kitchen, and on this occasion, the gods weren’t shining on Bala Baya, with the best ones arriving first and the ones I could have taken or left bunched towards the end, where they lingered in my memory, taking the edge off what had come before. Had things worked out differently, I might have left saying this was the hottest new restaurant in town.
Cured salmon with tart rhubarb, preserved lemon and dill jelly, for instance, was a great way to kick things off, perfectly balanced despite juggling a plateful of bold flavours. Fish tartar was a sizeable dome of meat swimming in an oily green vinaigrette, the natural sweetness of the fish powering through the zingy dressing. Persian-style dumplings – melty, crumbly things made with chickpeas – with lamb neck and a little grated pecorino dissolve into a rich broth in your mouth. Brilliant. And the “crispy, sticky, crunchy” fried chicken with butternut squash, bitter orange, harissa and kimchi: wow, I could eat this mash-up of Cantonese and Korean and Kentucky cuisine all the way to the cardiology ward.
Things started to slow with the beef and onion, one of two “feast” plates recommended as a main, or for two to share. The braised shoulder, off the bone, whipped with tahini and strewn with crisped onions had that deep, condensed, unmistakeable taste of cattle; great for a mouthful or two but as heavy as mercury, and not really varied enough to eat as a dish to yourself. Then came the brains – meh – followed by two puddings – tahini and banana cheesecake, and an Israeli milk pudding in a cocktail glass – that both felt like they were on the menu out of necessity rather than affection.
At a shade under £140 for two, with a bottle of wine (a middling Riesling, in case you were wondering), it's certainly reasonable. And I was over-ordering in the name of journalism: you could easily feed two for £80-100 and still come out feeling remorseful at your gluttony.
There are no shortage of restaurants serving great Middle-Eastern food right now (see also: Palomar, The Barbary, Nopi); if I didn't know better I'd call it a trend. Bala Baya deserves to be mentioned in this company, although I can’t help thinking if it had only opened a few years earlier, people would have been screaming about it from the rooftops.