With brill, octopus and beef ribs on the menu, this isn’t your Dalston mate’s idea of a Turkish restaurant
Yeni is the London counterpart of a feted Istanbul restaurant, but you wouldn’t know it from the Soho restaurant’s website. For the casual observer, the only clues to its Turkish origins are its somewhat enigmatic name and the presence of a few Anatolian ingredients and terms on its short bistronomy-ish menu. This is almost certainly a deliberate attempt to skirt the ocakbasi-derived stereotypes of Turkish food probably held by most Brits.
Given Yeni’s relatively high prices, that’s a wise strategy as we unfortunately live in a society where only a select few ‘ethnic’ cuisines and chefs can get away with charging high prices. This unspoken hierarchy mirrors the general level of acceptance and equality afforded to those who cook it – Japanese restaurants can charge high prices; Chinese and Indian restaurants typically can not (although this is changing, to a degree, in London). If the venomous vitriol about Turkey and its people during the campaigning for the EU referendum is indicative, then there’s relatively little leeway for Turkish restaurants to charge more than the cost of a cinema ticket.
That’s a sad indictment of our society, but one can forgot about that – at least for a few hours – in the embrace of of Yeni’s calm, stripped-back dining room. While Yeni’s contemporary take on Turkish food largely avoids the summer holiday cliches, it doesn’t indulge in any modernist tropes either. It instead takes a grounded approach that remixes ingredients and techniques, while still remaining accessible.
Starters at Yeni
Yeni’s manti amuse bouche came in both beef and aubergine versions, with the latter for vegetarians. The beef version had a meaty tang to it, while the eggplant variant was surprisingly sharp and almost citrusy. Both came in an earthy, creamy sauce reminiscent of mushrooms and dotted with sprightly blobs of hot sauce. It aptly complimented both versions to titillating effect.
While a helping of crusty bread was pleasing enough, it paled into comparison next to the wan and wispy butter. Its lactic tang edged with a burnt caramel-like flavour was remarkably addictive, which made its small helping all the more frustrating.
Wafer thin slices of blood red beetroot were considerably less potent than I expected. This turned out to be a virtue though with its much more moderate flavour – a balance of sweetness and funk – proving to be surprisingly winsome. Accompanied by a sweet olive oil and a thick yet airy labneh, it proved to be an understated yet unequivocal success.
Aged feta was almost certainly made from goat’s milk rather than cow’s as it had a deep earthy muskiness. It meshed beautifully with the warmth of spiced honey, which in turned blended with crunchy macadamia nuts and lightly salty samphire to create a dish of uncommon depth and nuance. The melody of sweet, spiced nuttiness and creamy muskiness was truly delightful.
It’s unclear whether the cig kofte tartare used beef or lamb, but it didn’t matter in the end. The smoothly ground raw meat had been seasoned just-so, giving it a profound moreishness. While it didn’t quite have the same bite and chew as a good French-style steak tartare, the kitchen did have a trick up its sleeve. Piercing the potato sphere’s crisp shell – itself balanced on top of the meat – unleashed not just a tuft of fluffy carbs, but a stream of rich egg yolk too. It soaked into the meat, enhancing its moreishness even further. An inspired combination and a deft reimagining of classic steak tartare and cig kofte tropes.
Plump scallops made up for their lack of character with their chunky size. The scallops’ inability to evoke the sea arguably allowed them to better act as a conveyor for the superlative qualities of both the sauce and the vegetable puree. The former’s bold umami meshed surprisingly well with the latter’s blend of ginger, carrot and walnut which was surprisingly pumpkin-like. I slurped up every last drop.
Mangetout and julienned apple were perfect partners-in-crime, the sweet crispness of each almost indistinguishable from the other. They were perfect conveyors for a potent sriracha-esque chilli heat which was itself neatly offset by by a smooth milky yoghurt.
Wafer-thin slices of celeriac had a fruity sweetness as the vegetable had been braised in olive oil. Much of it was prone to mushiness though which, combined with its one-note flavour, meant it quickly became a tiresome eat. This dish would probably have been better suited as an amuse bouche, rather than as a larger starter.
Mains at Yeni
Yeni’s rendition of brill wasn’t quite as delicate and nuanced as the version sometimes available at the nearby Kiln. The fish was still immensely satisfying though and not just because of its portly dimensions. Its milky, meaty chunks were aptly accompanied by a moreishly lip-smacking sauce dotted with punchy capers and tangy sweet prunes. That might sound like an odd combination, but the two were perfectly balanced. It left me panting for more.
Yeni’s take on stuffed vine leaves was far less satisfying. While certainly filling, it was the sort of monotonous chaff I’d expect from the nearby Mildred’s. The leaves alternated between supple, crisp and chewy. The real problem lay with the surprisingly dull filling of lentils and labenth, neither of which had the depth of character or charming complexity to carry a dish of this size. If I wanted to taste cliched early 90s vegetarian cooking, then I’d trot on down to Brighton.
A curled octopus tentacle was almost perfectly cooked, the crisp charred crust emphasising the tentacle’s initial springiness and contrasting neatly with the tenderness of the muscular flesh underneath. Its subtle yet addictive moreishness received a boost from the sour cherry-flavoured bulgur wheat, while the impressively airy yet milky labneh sat somewhere in between feta and clotted cream in texture. This dish was nothing short of a masterclass in cooking cephalopods.
Beef rib meat served off the bone had its tangy richness bolstered by a pool of umami jus. The crisp herbs brought a complex, layered sweetness to the dish, adding enough nuance and variety to ensure that the hefty protein portion never outstayed its welcome.
Lamb shank came on-the-bone, but a knife was hardly required. The earthy, tender and moist meat slid off the bone with indecent ease. As enjoyable as the lamb and its bed of bitter spinach was, this dish only distinguished itself from its gastropub lookalikes with a rich jus and what appeared to be segments of celery – or perhaps rhubarb – that had a surprising citrusy sweetness to them.
Desserts at Yeni
Katayef-ish bite-sized doughnuts filled with a warm syrup would’ve been a fine dessert in their own right. Here though, they were accompanied a thick, dense and elastic ice cream with a subtle yet beguiling sweetness. The warmth of the pastry and the refreshing chill of the ice cream were then bound together by the intense aroma and sweetness of candied orange peel and orange blossom water. Truly remarkable.
Salted caramel panna cotta wasn’t in any way salty, but it most certainly packed the unmistakable sweetness of caramel. The denseness and thickness of the panna cotta was also remarkable, as if its thickening agent had been augmented with just enough salep and mastic and no more. The biscuit wafer perched on top was the perfect partner for the panna cotta. Its macadamia-like nuttiness segued seamlessly into the molasses-esque sweetness of the panna cotta, while its crunch contrasted neatly with the panna cotta’s chunky softness. A pumpkin juice curiously reminiscent of rooibos tea (at least it was in my mouth) rounded off an eminently distinguished dessert.
A repeat visit saw the the salted caramel panna cotta rebalanced, but not for the better. There was more salt and less caramel, while the texture was wispier this time around and not nearly as dense. While still enjoyable, it just wasn’t as satisfying as it had once been.
I had a similar sentiment revisiting the katayef-esque bite-sized doughnuts. This dessert was almost as delightful as it been before, but for a notable lack of citrusy aroma and tang. The surprising flaccidity of the candied orange peel and absence of orange blossom water left this dessert greatly diminished.
Yeni’s immense promise is apparent from its sensational renditions of octopus and brill, not to mention its sophisticated, precision-crafted creations such as the cig kofte tartare and feta with honey. Yeni also earns significant kudos with its efficient yet welcoming service which sets it apart from the many other recent new openings in London blighted by hospitality that barely deserves the name. All this makes its failures and wobbles all the more disappointing, from the stuffed vine leaves and braised celeriac to its somewhat inconsistent desserts.
Yeni has the potential to be not just another excellent Soho restaurant, but a restaurant capable of helping reframe our very idea of what Turkish food can be and perhaps even make us think about how our society treats and values those who create it. Only time will tell if it can fulfil that potential and match the soaring standards set by the similar-veined Kyseri. Which is already a problem as I’m hungry with impatience.
Name: Yeni (aka Yeni Lokanta)
Address: 55 Beak Street, Soho, London W1F 9SH
Phone: 020 3475 1903
Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday noon-14.30 and 17.30-22.30 (last orders 22.00). Closed Sunday.
Average cost for one person including soft drinks: £60-70 approx.