Israeli-born chef Eran Tibi brings Middle-Eastern cuisine to life with a casual flare at Bala Baya in Southwark…
Photo: Bala Baya
There is winter food and there is summer food. There are winter venues and there are summer venues.
Bala Baya, in the Old Union Yard Arches in Southwark, is the latter. The all-day Israeli-inspired eatery serves up deceptively simple fare that sings on a hot summer’s day.
I’m told the restaurant is based on the sites and sounds of Tel Aviv and you can see that.
Aside from the menu which features fresh, creative takes on familiar Middle Eastern favourites and the high energy music, Bala Baya’s interior is a sleek high-ceiling domed room with exposed brick walls and tiled floors – a room designed for a few drinks over dinner on a balmy night.
The restaurant straddles the line between casual and chic. It’s fit for a lazy weekend brunch, a family mid-week meal or an unfussy celebration dinner with your crew.
Owner and chef Eran Tibi previously worked under Sami Tammi at Ottolenghi for four years and in the kitchen at Nopi too – and the parallels are clear between the two chefs.
Israeli-born Tibi’s menu has fresh produce at the heart and centre of every dish, invigorated with unusual herbs and spice mixes and an array of rubs and drizzles that taste too complex to try to replicate at home.
The menu is designed to be shared, and thankfully, the tables are large enough to accommodate a smattering of plates and glasses comfortably, because a) it’s annoying when they’re not and b) the menu looks good.
We decided to go full vegetarian and non-meat eaters won’t miss out on a single trick here – the flavour pairings are a treat.
Sweet, macerated lychees cut through the smokey, rose-petal peppered char-grilled aubergine, and the fried cauliflower steak rubbed with a paprika parmesan mix atop of pomegranate syrup and lime yoghurt has a tart, mouth-watering bite to it.
Also on the table, we had tahini-dense hummus and creamy rich labneh with harissa, preserved lemon and crispy shallots for kick and crunch.
A stuffed vine leaf of sorts flavoured with cranberries and caramelised onion offered sweeter notes, as did the wine-glazed roasted cabbage with crispy thin shards of basil and filo served on creme fraiche.
We had a supply of fresh pita, which perhaps sums up the effort required to make a dish seem so, well, effortlessly good.
Made on site, the bread-making process sounded long and laborious, yet the fluffy discs of dough were delightful and the perfect, unassuming, accompaniment to the flavour-laden dishes.
For dessert, we shared a hazelnut and dark chocolate burnt babka with a sharp morello cherry compote, which was neither heavy nor too sweet.
To wash every thing down, we started with a gazoz each – traditional Israeli sodas. The refreshing, layered infusions of grapefruit and thyme, and blackberry, lavender and mint quenched a hot day’s thirst.
For wine, we went for the house white – a light, crisp and easily quaffable Israeli chardonnay. We also tried a French viognier which was a dry drop and equally drinkable.
Coming full circle, we finished on something called a love shot – as herbaceous and zingy as the gazoz we started on, but with a boozy kick designed to send you into the night.
Price ££; Monday-Friday 12pm-3pm, 5pm-10pm; Saturday 10.30am-4pm, 5pm-10pm; Sunday 10.30-4pm, 5pm-9pm; Arch 25, Old Union Yard Arches, 229d Union Street, Southwark, SE1 0LR; balabaya.co.uk