Tucked down The Old Union Yard Arches, in a brick-exposed railway arch, Bala Baya is a new Tel Aviv-inspired restaurant in Southwark. It’s the first solo venture from Eran Tibi, who cut his teeth at Ottolenghi. Like Eran, who had us ‘sampling’ bitter orange vodka shots on a school night, it’s lively and energetic, and I have no doubt that over time the restaurant will become a staple on the London dining scene.
Like all good meals we started with bread – here charred, chewy flatbreads with a tangy rose harissa mayo – while we mused over the menu. Split into ‘feasts’ (seabass, £24 or braised beef, £18), ‘plates’ (£9-£12) and ‘sides’ (£6-£7), we were advised to order six dishes to share for dinner.
Crispy calamari was the first plate to arrive (they come when they’re ready, so eat fast or expect a pile up) – springy rounds, battered and crisp, served with a zigzag of saffron and butternut jam had a tart, yuzu-like taste, and a soft slick of creamy aioli. Familiarly Moorish and dangerously moreish.
Next came cauliflower: last year’s ‘it’ vegetable didn’t disappoint. Served blackened with an umami blanket of heavenly tasting red crumble topping. Our waitress (who was a highlight of the meal – super chatty, excited and passionate about the food, and swift in delivery) explained this heady mix was grated parmesan infused with paprika that had been baked until golden and crumbly. Clever cooking indeed – there’s a confidence from the kitchen, mixing classic Eastern Mediterranean flavours with different ingredients from different cuisines, which, for the most part, left us licking the plates clean.
The fried chicken with kimchi, much to our waitress’s surprise (it’s a bestseller, apparently) didn’t hit the same mark. Dry, and leaning too far along the Korean scale, it jarred on the table. Don’t get me wrong, I love Korean food. KFC-me-up any time. But when the promise of incredible aromatic Israeli food is on offer, this tasted awkward and aggressive.
Salmon shawarma was juicy and tart, though, and beef and onion (a braised beef shoulder) was tender and properly seasoned, and, interestingly, served with puréed pickled chillies (the long green ones that are brined and chucked onto kebabs). A blanket of thick, creamy yogurt dusted with tart sumac was draped over each. Both dishes were real highlights.
Bursting full? Yeah. Dessert ready? Hell yeah. Tahini and banana cheesecake was a tad light in sesame taste but was still silky and delicious and had us each fighting for the last mouthful.
The restaurant is, as all good eating establishments should be, really fun. Upbeat music (would you expect anything less from Tel Aviv folk?) thumps across the two floors, and the staff were wonderful, making us feel totally at home, guiding us through every dish and drink on the menu with ease. With several standout plates of food, cracking service, and its unique party atmosphere, Bala Baya is sure to do well.
Arch 25 Old Union Yard Arches,
229 Union Street,
London SE1 0LR
Words by John Gregory-Smith