Iznik is a north London favourite. But will its classy kebabs survive the long march west to Chelsea?
Iznik Kaftan, 99-103 Fulham Road, London SW3, tel: 020 7581 6699
Sunday 08 June 2008
The Turks, as every Turk will tell you, invented gastronomy. In their minds, their cooking ranks with French and Chinese as one of the world's three great cuisines. Without them, we would not have yoghurt, sherbet, baklava, Turkish delight or Turkish coffee. They also gave the world the open-air restaurant, brought to Vienna in the 17th century from the shores of the Bosphorus, and kick-started the Parisian café scene in 1699, when the Turkish ambassador introduced Parisian society to the joys of coffee drinking.
Yet, for many, the height of Turkish cuisine in this country is a hastily gobbled doner kebab after too much lager. It's not right, innit?
The more recent history of Iznik (the London restaurant, not the ancient Turkish city) has done much to turn kebab-scoffing back into a civilised pursuit. After Adem and Pirlanta Oner bought a greasy spoon in Highbury in 1989, so many regulars preferred the staff's Turkish food to the fry-ups that the Oners soon went Turkish all the way.
Now with Iznik's newish, two-level baby sister in Brompton Cross, they have raised the bar again. Iznik Kaftan feels like an ante-room of Topkapi Palace, with its mad clutter of artefacts, silk cushions, rich embroideries, dramatically baubled chandelier and framed, full-length antique Ottoman silk kaftan. It's not exactly your neighbourhood mangal grill, but then, Chelsea is not exactly Dalston.
The menu is shorter than at Highbury and prices are a touch higher. Popular favourites such as sis kebab, felafel and sucuk (sausage) rub shoulders with lesser-known offerings including fener sis (marinated monkfish skewers), patlican salata (aubergine and red pepper purée) and mücver (courgette and cheese fritters).
The joy of a Turkish meal is in carpeting the table with little dishes then swooping, dipping, nibbling and talking your way through the lot. The high spot here turns out to be cacik (£4.75), a cool, refreshing combination of cucumber, mint, garlic and lovely, silky yoghurt, made on the premises. It's a good contrast to the golden, pakora-like mücver (£4.95) – crunchy fritters of courgette and feta that come with a teasingly small spoonful of kisir, an incredibly moreish cracked-wheat salad oozing red peppery juices. The famous aubergine dish imam bayildi (£5.50) looks rather like the swooning sultan its name suggests, its fat body split to display the sweet, rich caramelised onion stuffing; vegetarians do very well here. In fact, the only dull starter is pan-fried sucuk sausage (£5.95) that has a good spicy taste but a smooth commercial texture. The linking device is, of course, Turkish bread, which comes warm and puffy, but falls way short of the freshly baked version.
Wines are mainly New World and Italian, but the presence of Cankaya, a lean, fresh, floral Turkish white wine for £13.95 makes it easy to keep under my £80 budget.
By now I am convinced vegetarians get more out of Iznik Kaftan than meat-eaters. A mixed grill of chicken sis, lamb sis, lamb köfte and chicken köfte (£14.45) with rice and salad is competent, but not exciting. There is no sizzle, no scorch. But a crisp salad has pink peppercorns lurking in the well-dressed leaves, and a cold dish of taze bakla (£12.50) is just lovely, the juicy, sweet, stewed broad beans complete with pods dressed with more of that silky yoghurt and masses of dill. To end, a bowl of sütlaç (£5.50), a sweetly spiced Turkish rice pudding, is deliciously zesty with orange, if a little thick for the modern palate.
The freshness of the produce, charm of the music and sweetness of the staff give Iznik Kaftan the edge. But the more polite this food gets, the less exciting it is, lacking the joy of real bread from a real oven and sizzling meat and smoke from a real grill. Its heart is in the right place, but the right place may not be Chelsea.
Scores: 1-9 stay home and cook, 10-11 needs help, 12 ok, 13 pleasant enough, 14 good, 15 very good, 16 capable of greatness, 17 special, can't wait to go back, 18 highly honourable, 19 unique and memorable, 20 as good as it gets
Iznik Kaftan, 99-103 Fulham Road, London SW3, tel: 020 7581 6699. Lunch and dinner daily. Around £75 for two, including wine and service
Second helpings: More Turkish delights
73 Hanover Street, Edinburgh, tel: 0131 225 5755
Turkey comes to New Town. Expect all the usual meze and kebabs, plus specials such as burdur kebabi (chicken stuffed with mushrooms and cheese)
94 Kew Road, Richmond, Surrey,tel: 020 8940 0033
Its easy-going feel, fair prices and good, no-fuss fare means bookings are a must. Recommended are ishpanak (spinach with peppers and rice) and baklava
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A light, modern approach to Turkish cooking is matched by a light, modern, no-clutter approach to décor. First-timers should order the "Feast" set menu
Read Terry Durack's new column at independent.co.uk/eat
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