There is a moment of sheer despair that passes between my dining partner and I when we take our bar stools overlooking the open kitchen at Oklava, chef Selin Kiazim’s popular Turkish Cypriot restaurant tucked away behind Old Street.
The low-lit dining room is mostly full and the atmosphere buzzy but below a din. A friendly member of the kitchen staff has already taken our coats and expertly steered us through the list of 20 little-known Turkish wines with plenty of tastings and tipples before we settle on a Kavaklıdere muscat with a pleasant, dry finish.
She then moves to explain the menu: sharing plates, with a modern take on traditional Turkish dishes, which are divided among ‘snacks’, ‘vegetable’, ‘pide’, ‘seafood’ and ‘meat’ sections. But then she finishes up the spiel by recommending we order two dishes per person.
We look down and immediately want to order everything. “Two from each section…?” I ask, hopefully. “Erm, no, that would be quite a lot…” she trails off, before stepping away to let us ponder what is quickly becoming the dining equivalent of Sophie’s Choice.
Baharat spiced bread with medjool date butter or whipped feta crostini with candied pumpkin and chilli? Charcoal grilled hellim in honey and oregano or lahmacun, the crisp flatbread topped with fragrant lamb mince and tomatoes? A spiced lamb tomahawk or za’atar chicken?
Herein lies the problem when you have a chef as talented as Kiazim and small plates that err on the side of, well, big.
But as tempting as it is to order the lot and hand ourselves over to the food coma sure to follow, we manage to whittle it down to four, OK, five dishes, each of them more impressive than the last.
The bread makes the cut, as it often does; a dense loaf sweetly spiced with nutmeg and cloves and served warm with a thick curl of salted medjool date butter.
Then comes the storied hellim; charcoal infused from a quick stint on the coals, then drizzled with honey, lemon, olive oil and a surprise pinch of oregano. Bread and cheese doesn’t get better than this.
Another star dish makes its presence felt subtly; chunks of roasted cauliflower (above) are slathered in a low-heat smokey urfa chilli paste and heaped with red onions, fresh parsley and pistachio.
The oxtail pide, however, is more punchy; a flatbread boat containing spiced oxtail and generous dollops of tomato pepper sauce and fennel yoghurt with a pickled vegetable and olive side salad.
As predicted, the lamb tomahawks just about finish us off – meat well seasoned and glistening beneath lightly charred skin, though one particularly fatty serve meant there wasn’t a great deal of it between us.
It was the only black mark in an otherwise perfect meal, and the silver lining was that less meat left more room for pudding; the Turkish-style panna cotta ‘Honouring Venus Rosewater’ that earned Kiazim first prize in the dessert round of BBC Two’s Great British Menu in 2017.
Eyes still much bigger than our stomachs, we left with a clawing case of food FOMO mollified, somewhat, by a booking to return and grand plans to recreate the dishes we missed at home with the two Oklava recipe books clutched in our hands.
Realistically, the former will come to fruition well before the latter. Go to Oklava, but for god’s sake go in a group.
Oklava, 74 Luke Street EC2A 4PY