Israeli food, a 25% discount, and a hidden spot underneath Southwark’s railway arches: yes, please. Bala Baya is a new restaurant from ex-Ottolenghi chef Eran Tibi and popper-upper Sammy Shonn. Heart-warmingly, Bala Baya is an incarnation of what they describe as their very own “poem to Tel Aviv”. This is a tale of an honest love between food and people which is such an important aspect of love: love of place – whether it be Tel Aviv or London or anywhere else for that matter – is a relationship in itself and food is a wonderful way to celebrate this. As the London Grind’s moto goes, “ a man who is tired of London is tired of life”. Having not yet travelled to Israel – which is definitely on my to-go list – I was very excited to try out Bala Baya.
Tucked snugly under a Southwark railway arch, Bala Baya somehow opens into a bright expansive space inspired by Tel Aviv’s Bauhaus architecture. You can hear the trains passing by, reflecting how this space blends the old and new so well, making a feature of the city’s infrastructure and the interior’s exposed brick wall – very industrial chic. Whilst the ground floor is home to a white counter snaking around the open kitchen which has the buzz so typical of Palomar and the Barbary, the second mezzanine level, where my companion and I sat, is laden with palms and blush pink seating.
Although the menu is rooted in tradition, authentic Israeli plates are given a contemporary refined twist. Struck by the sound of all the vegetarian dishes, my companion and I shared the Cauliflower with crumble, syrup and yoghurt (£7), the Aubergine Tea with Milk (£8) and the Stuffed Peppers with smoked freekeh, sour cherries and citrus yoghurt (£9).
Why the aubergine is described as “Tea with Milk” is still something of a misnomer to me as it doesn’t reveal the real star of this plate which, for me, is the blend of harissa and date glaze, with the lime and goat’s curd. The mixture artfully adorned the plate like a modern piece of art. Indeed, the plating of the kitchen is so impressive: the aubergine was served cut in half – like a “steak” – and given a gentle crunch with a spicy hazelnut nut crumb. The dish skilfully married sweet and savoury, which is what I so love about Middle Eastern foods.
Whilst the peppers did have an alluring smokey flavour, this was perhaps the most homely of the dishes. With its warming, hearty tomato sauce, it reminded me of a dish you might rustle up at home. Perhaps this is in keeping with the hands-on and hands-in approach of family-style dining that’s at the heart of Tibi’s cuisine.
The highlight of the three dishes for both my companion and I was the cauliflower. Spectacularly seasoned, it had an impressive balance between crunch from the crumble and creaminess from the fresh yoghurt. Utter deliciousness.
Impressively, Bala Baya is a fluid all-singing and all-dancing eatery: a bakery by morning, a fast-paced pitta pit-stop by lunch, when freshly, piping hot pitta breads cooked in their special pitta oven are served Tel Aviv style, and a buzzy street level restaurant at night, it seems to move seamlessly from day to night. Its shifts into its various guises effortlessly well. The hip tunes and dancey music that were being played in the background gave the impression that it could even morph into a bar/night-club later in the evening! Speaking to the General Manager, I learn that Tibi has previously worked at Made in Camden and Zest@JW3. Zest is on my to-go-to list but whether it matches the quality of Bala Baya, we’ll have to see…
Bala Baya, Arch 25 Old Union Yard Arches, 229 Union Street, London, SE1 0LR