Bala Baya in Southwark: Dazzling dishes deliver a gleeful Mediterranean grand-slam
Despite Bala Baya being tucked under a railway arch at the back of an alley already stocked with eateries, the house is full of life, and tables turn over constantly. “Israeli cuisine” fails dramatically to capture the magic that chef Eran Tibi has spun into every dish and seemingly every brick of the arch that his restaurant fills. The two floors of dining, curated by award-winning designer Afroditi Krassa, lift the spirits and recreate the feel of airy, sunny, Mediterranean evenings. You don’t dine at Bala Baya to merely sample some Israeli cuisine; you eat, drink, and breathe in Tibi’s Tel Aviv roots, turned up to maximum wattage.
We were taken on a journey with the seven-course tasting menu (of which there is a five-course version, or the option to simply choose the small plates ad hoc), opening with chickpea hummus and pitta. Fluffy, chewy, grilled breads arrived, scorching hot and accompanied by a plate of topped hummus and tahini. Bright pickled chilis stood out, with richly spiced pine nuts, sweet puréed tomato and fresh coriander. It was totally seductive – familiar yet dazzlingly extravagant – and we nibbled it alongside our main meal until dessert.
Baked cauliflower arrived, lashed with yoghurt, spiced smokey crumble and tongue-smacking date syrup. Tangy but tamed, it kicked us off with rich, invigorating notes and first-class presentation. Aubergine Tea with Milk came shortly after, defying verbal logic slightly, in the form of tea-smoked aubergine with buttermilk and chopped hazelnuts. This recipe deserves a review of its own, in all honesty: a total triumph of balance, poise, colour and nuance, shrugged off as a single dish among seven. Envy-inducing. Maddening.
Venison minute steak followed, ambitiously bathed in a “date and yeast butter”, which sadly didn’t shake the earth for either of us, but was an exquisite piece of meat nonetheless. Eran sources hunted deer, butchered nose-to-tail, and the quality is undeniable. Another quizzically named offering, Brick Potato, had us scratching our heads: a garlic confit potato (just one, medium-sized). Velvety, moist inside, bursting with flavour even before encountering its horseradish sauce and porcini mushroom broth. Enough flavour for two plates, but short of the body of even one.
We enjoyed the Fish and Fennel, which presented warm, contrasting flavours of anise, sage and vine tomato, alongside perhaps the meatiest sea bass in London – another point for outstanding ingredient-sourcing. Another stand-out serving was the Laffa Couture – an Iraqi flatbread stuffed with slow-roasted lamb and smoked plum syrup. Hitting warm, sweet notes, with a delightful chew, it’s a clear favourite for us and one of the menu’s most popular items. It’s a dish that alone justifies a visit to Bala Baya.
Our desserts required a bit of a wait, in contrast to the rapid-fire main plates, but it was welcome. We revisited the hummus and reflected on chef Eran’s ability to compose a dazzling dish from perhaps three or four carefully-chosen ingredients, each punching far above its weight. The topped hummus itself is a great example, stretching the palate between savoury, sweet, bitter, bright, oily, smokey, grassy and nutty moments. These offerings really serve to remind how tantalising good food can be – hypnotic, aching, visually exquisite.
We finished our drinks: a delightfully fragrant lavender and berry gazoz, and a decadent flying camel vodka-based cocktail – spiced and dusted with sumac – and then turned to our desserts. The warm Burnt Babka stayed light, despite a sticky pistachio filling, due to the beautifully aromatic rose-stewed plums that were paired with it. A gleeful white chocolate cheesecake rounded out our epic journey, sandwiching two hot banana fritters under lashings of caramel and sesame dusting, and delivering every ounce of the satisfaction it promised.
Tibi’s stunning menu continues into brunch and weekday options, no doubt delivering further delights, with his characteristic 110 per cent intensity of flavour. Whether you stop in for just cocktails, pitta and hummus, or a seven-course grand-slam, expect Bala Baya to deliver to the fullest.
Photos: Matthew Pull
To book a table at Bala Baya, Arch 25 Old Union Yard Arches 229 Union Street London SE1 0LR, call 020 8001 7015 or visit their website here.