A Middle Eastern sharing menu with some charm, here and there.
A curious thing happened in medieval Europe following the apocalyptic devastation of the Black Death. With workers fewer in number, those that remained were able to command better wages and working conditions from their titular overlords – an imbalance in the supply-and-demand of the labour market of the time which they used to better their lives.
It’s not hard to see parallels to the modern day, as restaurants – especially restaurants in London – begin to emerge from the double-fisted pummeling that is the pandemic and Br💩xit. Reports of labour shortages abound as restaurants scrabble around for skilled, experienced workers. For those front-of-house and kitchen staff that haven’t abandoned restaurant life for other careers and/or the continent, the moment almost seems ripe to better their lot in life.
But there’s at least one potential snag. Whereas the medieval worker was beholden to just one overlord who held the pursestrings, the average restaurant worker must contend with two – their employer and the paying diner. If restauranteurs must pass on the cost of better pay and conditions for their workers onto their customers, will those diners willingly cough up?
The short answer is that it’s impossible to say. If enough of us, as paying diners, are willing to pay restaurants what they’re truly worth, then at least something good will have come from the wider calamity. If not enough of us do, then one of the many potential outcomes is that restaurants – for most people – increasingly become the occasional treat that they once were, rather than the frequent indulgence that they have become.
This train of thought was given steam as Snaggletooth and I sat down at Bala Baya, an Israeli-Levantine-ish restaurant nestled in a Southwark railway arch. Although Snaggletooth initially had sticker shock at seeing the bill and its still modest 12.5% service charge, especially after a year of paying much less for takeaways and meal kits, he was happy to pay it. Especially given Bala Baya’s canopy-covered outdoor dining area, an essential part of dining out as safely as possible during the pandemic, which not all restaurants have.
Once that eventually recedes in importance though, Bala Baya will have to contend more on the merits of its service and cooking. While a bit bumpy and raw in places due to some obviously inexperienced new recruits, the service was still welcoming and efficient for the most part.
The food, on the other hand, was a more uneven affair.
Mezze-sized dishes at Bala Baya
Bala Baya’s hummus buzzed with a far stronger taste of tahini than the supermarket spaff. This lent it a nutty richness which was further enhanced by the unexpected zest of the pickled chilli.
Aubergine ‘mess’ served at room temperature had a fleshy mouthfeel, but it lacked the flavoursome charms of say a baba ghanoush or imam bayildi. It instead relied on the yoghurt and pomegranate for character.
Grape leaf rice pie was, unsurprisingly, reminiscent of dolmades both in appearance and taste – except bigger, around the size of a six inch pot pie. The leafy flaps faded away, leaving the sweet fluffy rice to be enjoyed unhindered.
The best part of the tempura monkfish was the delicately crisp batter shell, an oil-free exemplar of just how sublime deep frying can be. The monkfish underneath wasn’t as deftly executed though – verging on softness, rather than retaining its meaty bounce.
Prawn ‘baklava’ gets its name from the strings of shredded filo pastry, wound around the crustaceans like a twine pastry suit. While the crunch of the pastry and the reasonable levels of firmness and maritime zing in the prawns were pleasing enough, this dish lacked a certain something to truly bind the two together. Plumper, more strident prawns wouldn’t go amiss either.
The beef of the Tunisian tartar, pounded into thin yet meaty flaps, was almost like a cross between lahmacun topping and a carpaccio – but with an unexpected zingy twist. On paper, it appeared to be the least promising of all the mezze-sized dishes but was – in the end – one of the most satisfying.
The thick, doughy skins of the ping pong ball-sized manti came stuffed with hearty dollops of pulled lamb. Those l’il bleaters had a light, unexpected tanginess that was enhanced by the thin, lightly sour yoghurt and date sauce. Although not quite as superlative as the comparable manti from the now sadly departed Kayseri, it’s not too far off either.
Meaty slices of glossy bass, gleaming in a marinade of punchy citrus flavours, made for a respectable ceviche.
Main-sized dishes at Bala Baya
My distinction between mezze-sized and main-sized dishes at Bala Baya is somewhat artificial as everything is ostensibly designed for sharing. Having said that, I wanted to push Snaggletooth away by the face so I could hoard the whole bass for myself. The meaty flakes of fish were an apt conveyor for the lip-smacking umami of the thin sauce and the sheafs of citrusy fennel.
The glossy, ebony-scarlet sheen of the beef shin hid an evenly tenderised mass of richly browned moo flesh. It was sumptuous enough in its own right, but was even better when taken with the thin yet hearty mash fortified with the nutty tendencies of tahini.
Desserts at Bala Baya
The set pudding base of the ‘Malibu’ malabi was surprisingly wan and plain. Given that the coconut and fruit layers were just as limp, this dessert ended up being little more than an unmemorable parfait.
Although small, the helping of babka was chunky, chewy and sweet. The compote was deceptively thin on the ground though, so there wasn’t enough of its distinctive sweet-sour cherry taste to go around. And I could’ve done with more hazelnuts and creme anglaise, but there’s the core of a winning dessert here. It just needs a little oomph.
If only all of Bala Baya’s desserts had been like the cheescake, ethereally light and gently zesty dairy fluff sandwiched between tightly-crumbed biscuit wafers. The cheesecake was almost upstaged by the accompanying banana fritter though, with its feathery crisp crust somehow transitioning almost seamlessly into the molten, tangy, gooey fruit inside.
I started this review with the theory that a post-pandemic London might prove to be a more profitable and livable one for restaurant workers. Whether that comes to pass depends, in part, on diner reaction towards paying more for their meals and service – especially after a year of eating more or less at home. That shouldn’t paint all diners as self-absorbed, single-mindedly consumerist Augustus Gloops (just some of them). After all, for many diners – especially younger ones – their ability to pay restaurants what they’re worth has been hobbled by a decade or more of stagnating salaries barely able to keep up with other living costs.
Which, for the purposes of this particular review, is a roundabout and perhaps overly intellectual way of asking whether Bala Baya is worth its current asking price. The answer is yes, but only just as it’s a close run thing. There are flashes of brilliance on the menu, but they are a little too intermittent. The verdict was tilted in Bala Baya’s favour by the welcoming service – a factor which always counts for more than anyone initially thinks.
As for whether the future really will be a more equitable and liveable place for restaurant workers, well that remains to be seen as it depends on the rest of us.
Name: Bala Baya
Address: Arch 25, Old Union Yard Arches, 229 Union Street, Southwark, London SE1 0LR
Phone: 0208 001 7015
Opening Hours: Monday-Friday noon-15.00 and 17.00-22.00. Saturday 11.00-16.00 and 17.00-22.00. Sunday 11.00-16.00 and 17.00-21.00.
Reservations: highly recommended
Average cost including soft drinks when shared between two: £70 approx.