★★★★★| Bala Baya, Southwark, London
A real find in the restaurant scene is Bala Baya. It’s a real find because it’s tucked away in a spot hard to find and it’s a real find because it’s extremely delicious.
A few minutes walk from Southwark tube station in the revitalised railway arches now chock a block full of restaurants and a couple of small theatres is Bala Baya.
Top-notch Israeli food cooked with care and to perfection is delivered to tables with grace and elegance in a space that is uniquely designed to make everything just perfect.
There are many choices on the menu but the best value is the set menu where you’ll share 7 dishes at £42 per person where each dish is so unlike the others.
The Chickpea Hummus (£7 on the a la carte menu) is an excellent blend of mixed spices, pine nuts (superb and plentiful), pickled chillies (for that extra kick), with tomato pulp, and served with two fluffy and very soft pitas. Just superb overall. The Mackerel & Harissa (£13), a dish I would normally never order, was an unexpected delight thanks to the combination of the Sharon Fruit (variety of persimmon), mustard cress and tomatoes which gave the dish a nice zing! While the mackerel was, of course, very fishy, the non-fish portion of the dish pushed it over the edge into delicious category. But what was more than delicious was the Wild Tomatoes dish. Very large (£10) and with each ingredient superb, it consisted of Mooli (white root), pickled red onions, Manouri cheese (similar to feta but cooked and better-tasting), and coriander with blackberry vinaigrette to top it off. Superb, zingy, and beautifully presented, with all the ingredients a great mix. It’s a dish I could eat every night! The Cauliflower & Roe (£13), while not as fabulous as the Wild Tomatoes (it’s hard to beat), consisted of a large cooked cauliflower with harissa, sweetcorn black pepper and cured fish roe on top of acidic vinegar, which, along with the harissa, gave the cauliflower a minor kick but it was an excellent texture. Next up was the Crispy, Sticky and Crunchy dish (£11) of chicken thighs – and all four pieces were of the name, with bitter orange, harissa, kimchi, butternut squash puree, hazelnuts sprinkled on top, and sumac.
While the Kimchi was too spicy, the combination of the rest of the ingredients gave this dish the perfect taste. But what was to come after just topped everything: the Cheeky. It was Ox cheek (a nice round portion, and slow-cooked for 3 hours we were told), with a large aubergine resting comfortably on top, and plum tomatoes alongside with the entire dish swimming in beef and date jus. And if this sounds mouth-watering it’s because it was! A dark brown dish, with the plum tomatoes giving it colour, it was large enough for us to share, but to be honest I wanted more of this dish even though I was getting full! Superb. It’s £18 on the a la cart menu by the way.
Too full is an oxymoron when you know there is dessert still to come. And we had two from the menu: the Burnt Babka and the Malibu Malabi. And if they both sound delectable it’s because they were! The Babka (dough baked into a golden brioche-like bread with added chocolate and hazelnuts and plums) reminded me of a cinnamon bun but with much more flavour. I absolutely loved this dish – and it was up to standard with the mains we had just devoured! The Malabi was coconut, orange blossom, mango, citrus fruit, sumac and rose all compacted into a glass dish.
My dining companion loved it but I was very happy with my Babka! Both desserts are also on the a la carte menu (£9 and £8 respectively).
As mentioned previously, the tasting menus are a bit better value than the a la carte menu. The other tasting menu is £53 per person – you get one more dish but this menu does not include the Cheeky nor the Wild Tomatoes dishes – which were two of my favorites.
As for drinks, it’s a given that Bala Baya has a drink for everyone. Cocktails are fine, with the Flying Camel a standout (Ketel One, Cointreau, grapefruit, sumas and rose), but I need to go back and try the Champagne Martini (yummy!), the Pomegranate and Ginger, and (!!) the Peach (with peach liqueur, lemon and prosecco). The wines are a good value, at two pages you have your pick of white, rose and reds, but as Bala Baya is an Israeli restaurant, your best bet is to jump in with both feet and go for the Israeli wine.
Chef Eran Tibi, a descendant from a Middle Eastern family, successfully brings his family’s cuisine to London. Trained at Le Cordon Bleu and the kitchens of Ottolenghi, the Roundhouse’s Made in Camden kitchen and founding Executive Chef at Zest@JW3, Eran’s passion and creativity are apparent in every one of his dishes.
It’s a slick, cool two-story restaurant with the downstairs in full view of the open kitchen but it’s upstairs where you want to sit. With an overhang of plants in the back, to the high ceilings and the floor to ceiling windows at the front, it’s a very comfortable environment where the tables are not too close to each other. And it’s under the concept of Desert Bauhaus, with interiors designed by the award-winning architect Afroditi Krassa. The wait staff are superb, attentive and very nice, and there is nothing bad to say about this place. It’s just perfect, like a lazy Saturday afternoon on a Tel Aviv Beach.
Tim Baros writes film and theatre articles/ reviews for Pride Life and The American magazines and websites, as well as for Hereisthecity.com, Blu-RayDefinition.com and TheGayUK.com. He has also written for In Touch and TNT Magazines, SquareMile.com and LatinoLife.co.uk. He is a voting member for the UK Regional Critics Circle and the Gay & Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association (GALECA – of which he is the UK representative). In addition, he has produced and directed two films: The Shirt and Rex Melville Desire: The Musical.