“I would be one fat Turk!” exclaims Boyfriend, as we waddle the two and a half miles home after eating at an ocakbasi restaurant in Dalston the other night.
Of the three major areas where I’ve lived -- the New York area, San Francisco, and London -- I have specific foods that I always plan to eat when I’m there. If I haven’t been to New York for a while, I look forward to poppy seed bagels, pizza, and Korean food. In the summer, it’s Long Island corn on the cob and boiled lobsters. West coast sushi beats east coast sushi nine out of ten times, so that’s on my San Francisco list, alongside carnitas soft tacos. In London, I have always looked forward to a vegetarian India restaurant called Chutney’s near Euston Station. But now I have a new addition to my must-eat list when in England’s capital: ocakbasi.
We heard about Mangal Ocakbasi first in a January 2008 edition of Time Out London, which featured 50 restaurant recommendations. The article wasn’t meant to be a guide to the finest dining in London, but rather a list of places where the food editors genuinely would want to eat again and again and would recommend to friends, co-workers, visitors, and so forth.
Mangal Ocakbasi made the list, and since it’s situated pretty close to our neighborhood, Boyfriend and I made a mental note to check it out sometime, without much more commitment than that.
Then, about a week or so later, the same restaurant appeared in an eating-out sidebar in the newspaper as a BYOB spot with no corkage fee. Our interest level suddenly shot up another six or seven notches.
So when plans to go to dinner with some friends fell through a few days later, Boyfriend and I arranged to meet up after work and school, head to Dalston, and find an off-license market where we could pick up a cheap bottle of red wine along the way.
It was a Thursday night, and though the restaurant was fairly busy at 7:00 when we arrived, we got a table right away. There are no menus for eating in, so newcomers must look at their options at the door, where a menu hangs unceremoniously on the window. The vague English translations make it difficult to distinguish between at least half the dishes; alternatively, you can just ask a server for recommendations. Nothing costs more than £11, with most main courses about £8 or £9.
Ocakbasi is a Turkish style of food that basically consists of grilled meats. Most restaurants are set up the same: a cold deli case at the front displays the raw skewered meat, and just next to it, there’s a long pit barbecue filled with ashen gray charcoals where the food is cooked as you order.
The smell -- which you can catch just walking up and down Stoke Newington High Street, where ocakbasi restaurants and Turkish bakeries dot every corner -- reminds me of going to Sunken Meadow Beach on the north shore of Long Island as a kid. In the late summer, Puerto Rican and Dominican families take over the parking lot at this state park and make use of simple pot-bellied charcoal grills. Unlike Puerto Rican food, of course, there’s no pork in ocakbasi, but that distinct smell of smoldering coals charring skewers of meat, blistering tomatoes and long green peppers hits the same memory circuit for me.
At Mangal Ocakbasi, the choices are about 15 variations on lamb chop, doner kebab (which is also lamb), chicken, and beef. Though I had my heart set on ordering a skewer of minced spiced lamb layered with sliced eggplant (I am a glutton for eggplant, especially when grilled by open flames), one of the many servers told me they were out. Boyfriend and I debated momentarily about whether we should just split the mixed grill, before I shut him out and demanded, "I’m getting my own." I chose the doner kebab in yogurt sauce, and he got the mixed grill for himself anyway.
We sit. We sip that £4.50 bottle of Australian red, which turns out to be 14 percent ABV -- bad news for me since I have a little work to finish up when we get home. A basket of warm flat bread arrives. We enviously eye another table that has ordered starters, and Boyfriend finds a server to bring us some hummus. We sip. We swirl torn bits of bread through the smooth hummus. We sip. We refill our glasses. We try not to eat too much bread (it’s meant to be part of the main course as well). We glance around at other tables, and I covertly decide that next time I’m going to order the starter that looks like a plateful of salsa, whatever it is.
Our food arrives! Well, Boyfriend’s food arrives, and my salad hits the table, but my meat is not quite ready yet. His plate is enormous. Surely, we could have split this and had more than enough food for two. There’s a long skinny leg of chicken, a doner kebab, a lamb chop, and something else that he wolfs down too quickly for me to identify. We each have a mound of salad with iceberg lettuce, arugula (“rocket,” as it’s known in England, is a staple green seen in just about every salad or sandwich) carrots, red cabbage, onions, vinegar, oil; and on Boyfriend’s plate, but not mine, there is a pickle. Now I’m not only jealous that his food came first, but I’m starting to keep score.
Then, a waiter swoops my dish down before me. Joy of joys! It comes in a crock, the same kind you’d use to serve manicotti straight from the oven. There is nothing greater than when I am served food that is genuinely hot, and this is what the crock signifies to me. I don’t know how they’ve done it, but the meat hot, yet it’s nested in a warm, but not hot, sauce of Greek-style yogurt. Spices abound. Juice and oil from the meat creates small puddles in the yogurt crevices. This is heavenly.
We drink. We eat. We dip. Likely horrifying fellow diners, I use my hands profusely to scoop with the bread, alternating between meat and yogurt, yogurt and salad, meat and salad, salad and yogurt, hummus and meat. It’s divine. I’m loving the whole experience.
The Midway Point
Then, I hit the midway point. I’ve eaten half my meal and I’m clearly not hungry any more. I wouldn’t say I’m full exactly, but I could, and should, stop now.
My one true passion in life is food and writing about it. Every so often the thought crosses my mind that because of this dedication, I really ought to be fatter. In our modern obesity-epidemic world, there are only a few people who are accepted despite their girth: chefs, food critics, sumo wrestlers, and Polynesians, who are genetically supposed to be more rotund than the rest of us. And sure, we will turn a blind fat-phobic eye to the stout Italian grandmother, who essentially falls into the “chef” category anyway.
Recall for a moment the saying, “Never trust a skinny chef.” Of course, there are ample chefs and food critics (and Polynesians) who are not fat. They’ve mastered the art of tasting without gorging. But generally, it’s acceptable to be a chef or food critic and be a bit on the pudgy side.
As I’m having this debate with myself about whether I’m supposed to be fatter, I decide, “I am going to pig out tonight.”
So I keep eating. A waiter comes along to ask if he can clear the plates, and firmly, I say no. Not yet. In hindsight, I might have growled.
I eat and eat, slowly, but steadily. I gab about how good the food is. I drink more. And when I finally stop, I take stock of what’s left on the table: a few pieces of rocket on my salad plate, about a cup of mixed salad on Boyfriend’s plate, a half cup of yogurt sauce (it’s too rich even for me to eat much more of it), three pieces of bread, and a few smears of hummus. For all the eating we did, this still seems like a lot food to be left over.
My belly is taut. My head is a little swimmy from the strong wine. And the waiter brings us the bill: 22 quid. A steal. However, as he leaves the check, he says, “I’m sorry, but we need this table.”
You never hear this sort of thing in Europe. Paying for a meal means you’re paying to sit at that table all night if you please. But his eyes say, “Business has suddenly been very good, and we can’t pass it up, and I’m truly sorry to hurry you along.” So we go, happy and full.
This is the point when I decide we need to walk the full two and a half miles home, and when Boyfriend declares he would be “one fat Turk.”
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