Food & Drink: The imam fainted; I just went dizzy: Simon Cunliffe finds superb food and warm hospitality beyond the kebab counters in north London's Turkish restaurants
From the outside, Lezzet Lokanta in Essex Road looks pretty much like any other nondescript north London kebab house. Even inside, it's no great shakes: a vertical fish tank announces the entrance to the long, narrow dining room, which has a few Turkish plates and the odd brass tray on the walls. It's only when you sample the attentive but relaxed service of the manager, Kayhan Senol, and his team, and the skill of the chef, Recep Kalayci, that you realise this is more than a doner joint with table manners.
The menu is extensive and covers most of the old favourites, but in a way that means it: the kalamar tava, fresh squid lightly floured and deep-fried, is a delight; hummus is nutty and creamy with hints of garlic, lemon and sesame; try the patlican salat, pureed aubergine with lemon juice, olive oil and green pepper. And don't miss Recep's imam bayildi - 'aubergine stuffed with onions, tomatoes, green pepper, kiss of garlic, oriental herbs and seasoning'. Imam bayildi translates as 'the imam fainted', and this version will at least make you dizzy with pleasure.
These starters mostly come in at pounds 2.20. Main courses include the unexpected, such as karides guvec (prawn casserole) and fish casserole provencal, but the star turns come off the grill. Lezzet Special (pounds 6), is marinated chicken breast that arrives char-striped and succulent, as does the grilled breast of chicken stuffed with spinach (pounds 6). For those who prefer beef, fillet and sirloin are served, but you'd go a long way for a more tender Sis a la Maison (pounds 6.50) - generous cubes of marinated lamb skewered with green pepper and onion and served with rice and salad.
Swordfish is pricey at pounds 9 but fresh and lightly grilled with a squirt of lemon, it's hard to beat. The only thing that might surpass it is Recep Kalayci's dish of the day. Recently, it was islim kebab, a parcel of moist, tender lamb wrapped up and oven-baked in aubergine. This truly was to die for.
Turkey is not the first place one thinks of for wine, but Lezzet offers a selection of plausible reds and whites, though we are not talking Chateau Musar here. Try Buzbag, a dry Anatolian red. Other dry reds and whites include Trayka and Villa Doluca. Otherwise there is a smattering of German, Italian and French wines.
Finish off with a dessert from a selection of the usual honey-soaked offerings or go straight to a Turkish coffee. This is usually followed by an elegantly prepared, palate-cleansing plate of fresh fruit, which arrives compliments of the house.
HEAD directly north on Essex Road and you come to Newington Green Road. At number 53 you will find Hodja Nasreddin. What it lacks in finesse it more than makes up for with charm and atmosphere. This tiny establishment is a wonderfully ornate Aladdin's Cave of kitsch. In a room no bigger than your average kitchen - seats about 20 people - every inch of the walls is festooned: with carpets, cheap brass figurines, brass swords embossed with fake turquoise, daggers with coral, plates embossed with portraits of Kemal Ataturk . . . From the ceiling, which billows tent-like in an Oriental material, hang coloured glass and brass lamps. Complete with Anatolian music, the effect is magical.
The food's not bad, either. I passed on the iskembe corbasi (tripe soup with garlic and vinegar) and had the borek (pounds 2) instead. These light, triangular pastry shapes filled with white cheese, herbs and spices were a delight. My wife couldn't resist trying the imam bayildi (pounds 2.10), which compared very favourably with Recep Kalayci's up the road. As a main course, the sote (pounds 4.60) - small pieces of lamb, stewed with herbs, mushrooms, tomatoes and onions and served with rice was not bad. Mary had chicken kebab (pounds 4.90), beautifully tender and juicy. We washed it down with a Villa Doluca white and after Turkish coffee were entertained by the waiter, Omer, who bravely translated a couple of the proverbs of the Hodja Nasreddin - the legendary sage and wit from whom the restaurant takes its name. A word of warning: don't allow yourself to be seated in the damp and charmless basement.
CONTINUE northwards to Green Lanes. Here begins what might be called London's 'Little Turkey'. Turkish 'sporting clubs' - men gather and play pool, drink coffee and chew the fat - sit side by side with barber's shops, fruit markets, halal butchers, community centres and political federations. Of the kebab houses, Guzelyurt Ocakbasi at 113 Green Lanes, is, with its open brazier in the seating area, rough and ready but friendly, the sort of place you might come across in an Istanbul side street. We tried patlican ezme (pounds 1.25), an aubergine salad prepared in oil and lemon juice, which was a mite too piquant, the chilli masking the delicate flavour of the aubergine. The ispanak tarator (pounds 1.25) - a spinach salad in yoghurt with garlic was better.
Not feeling adventurous we skipped the koc yumurta ('rams' reproductive organs') and plumped instead for the beyti kebab (pounds 4) - boneless best end of lamb minced and rolled with herbs and spices, and grilled - and the house sis kebab (pounds 4). With the beyti, again a heavy hand had been at the chilli powder, though it did come served with bulgar wheat, which made a pleasant change from rice. The sis was decent, though not meltingly tender.
A couple of doors down at number 91 is 01 Adana. Shame about the cream and green brick cladding decor, but it does have a very smart menu. The karisik meze (pounds 3) came in a selection of about six dips including hummus, tarama, cacik (yoghurt with cucumber and garlic), aubergine, spinach etc, and was served with fresh Turkish pide bread. Yogurtlu shish (pounds 6) - lamb kebab served on a base of pide bread cooked in yoghurt was interesting, but not so interesting that I'd opt for it again. The special tavuk (pounds 5.50) - breast of chicken marinated with garlic and cream sauce was a touch on the dry side. The service was attentive. Perhaps we chose the wrong dishes: judging by the constant traffic through the restaurant for take-aways, 01 Adana is popular locally.
Lezzet Lokanta: 330 Essex Road, London N1 (071-354 1162/226 7418). Booking advised at weekends. Pounds 15-pounds 20 per head with wine.
Hodja Nasreddin: 53 Newington Green Road, London N1 (071-226 7757). Booking advised at weekends. Pounds 12-pounds 15 per head with wine.
Guzelyurt Ocakbasi: 113 Green Lanes London N16 (071-704 2028). Pounds 8-pounds 10 per head.
01 Adana: 91 Green Lanes, London N16 (071-704 6404/704 6399). Pounds 12-pounds 18 per head.
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