Pitta and twisted

Raks is a fresh take on the traditional Turkish restaurant. There's not a woven rug in sight. And not much sign of inspired cooking, either, says Tracey MacLeod
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

I know it seems incredible, but after five years of writing this column, the lure of free meals is wearing off. In the early days, friends would happily turn out for dinner duty. They tolerated me scribbling notes under the table, interrupting their table talk, insisting that everyone order something different, just for that moment when the bill arrived and I took care of it.

I know it seems incredible, but after five years of writing this column, the lure of free meals is wearing off. In the early days, friends would happily turn out for dinner duty. They tolerated me scribbling notes under the table, interrupting their table talk, insisting that everyone order something different, just for that moment when the bill arrived and I took care of it.

Maybe my regular companions are richer now, or more jaded, but these days the venue has to be really special, or they're just not interested. This week I could find no takers for lunch in a new department-store cafeteria ("Self-service? I don't think so!") As for that revamped vegetarian place in Brixton; Richard Johnson went there for a drink (see page 38), but I couldn't persuade anyone to eat there. Even a promising-sounding American diner in Clerkenwell by the name of Honkers failed to entice, despite my (false) claim that the waitresses would be topless.

In the end I managed to tempt two of my long-time companions, Sharon (a 15-review veteran) and David (only six) with something different – trendy Turkish. The food promised to be high quality (all meat and vegetables used are organic), the premises stylish, and the location attractive: Heddon Street, just off Regent Street, is an oasis of low-key cosmopolitanism in London's increasingly enervating West End.

It also houses the first restaurant I ever reviewed for The Independent, Momo. Momo successfully did for the cuisine of the Maghreb what Raks is aiming to do for Turkey – show that it can be enjoyed by cool young people in fashionable surroundings. But whereas Momo went for a flamboyantly ethnic look (and became one of the trendiest restaurants in town), Raks has taken the opposite approach.

From the brushed-steel portholes in the door, to the wood veneers (of course), Philippe Starck table lamps and textured concrete walls, the premises are blandly modern. Raks' press release boasts that "there's not a Turkish rug in sight", as though yards of clichéd wood veneer would strike anyone as more interesting. The small dining room is good-looking (the lighting design is particularly clever), but the enterprise smacks of fear. "Yes, we do Turkish food," it seems to be saying, "but don't worry, we're not actually Turks, we're just Turk-ish."

The kitchen is on display, glassed in behind a long window. Less a theatre kitchen than a TV kitchen, it makes you feel like you're watching the action on a plasma screen. It's obvious why the glass is there, as smoke gutters up from the kebabs laid on the charcoal grill; there's also a rotisserie holding a doner, tucked discreetly out of sight in a corner.

By contrast with the design, Raks' menu is fairly traditional, though its line-up of meze and grilled meats is supplemented by a wider than usual selection of fish dishes. Our meal began promisingly, with a puffy balloon of hot, unleavened bread, cooked over the charcoal grill on a domed metal plate, and served with a selection of dips. We followed with the house speciality, pide: thin, crispy bread topped with spicy sausage, cheese and egg. It was lighter than a pizza, but even shared between three, was still more of a breakfast than a starter.

Encouraged by a price structure which means that meze get cheaper the more you order, we ranged freely across the list. Best was tangy, spice-coated slivers of lamb's liver, fried and served smoking hot. Grilled haloumi was also more rewarding than this rubbery and salty cheese can be. Not so good was a dish of greasy chicken wings, a smoked aubergine and yoghurt salad which looked and tasted pallid, and some supposedly spicy garlic mushrooms which Sharon compared unfavourably to those served at her local Harvester. Squid had been marinated in milk and vodka before frying, but was not notably improved by the process.

Something about watching kebabs being laid on to smoking charcoal seduced us all into having meaty main courses. We tried to vary our selection, but three key themes emerged – bread, meat and yoghurt.

"Special lamb" reminded us of a deconstructed doner kebab; all the usual components (bar the soggy paper bag) were artistically displayed on a big white dish, and a side-plate was offered, "so you can build a wrap". The slices of layered lamb were disappointingly dry; there's obviously an art to tending those meaty carousels. Ali Nazik consisted of light and spicy lamb kofte, on an aubergine salad, if salad is the word for a whole aubergine which has simply been grilled over charcoal, then peeled and sliced; it cried out for some olive oil and cumin to make it slippery and interesting. Spit-grilled quail were good and smoky, but the chilli sauce served with them tasted bottled.

After one of those obligatory triangles of pastry, honey and nuts, our bill came to around £100 between three, including a £22 bottle of Crozes Hermitage. Just as at Momo, there's a DJ bar downstairs, and a frenzied soundtrack of ululating music in the restaurant attempts to whip you into a frenzy. But how much of a frenzy can anyone manage after eating their own body-weight in bread and meat? Somehow Turkish food just isn't suited for delicate, fine dining, and the version served at Raks, despite its organic provenance, isn't notably better than the norm. As Sharon said, "I'd rather eat gorgeous food in a strip-lit café than strip-lit food in a gorgeous room."

"I wonder what Honkers would have been like," David sighed.

Raks, 4 Heddon Street, London W1 (020-7439 2929).

Comments