Thursday, 19 March 2009
Testi, Stoke Newington
There's something commendably unapologetic about the way Testi, an Ocakbasi grill in Stoke Newington, displays its most (in)famous ingredient in their front window. There, pride of place in one of those glass cabinets a high-street kebab shop may use to hold marinating chicken shish or lamb koftes, are a dozen alarmingly large raw lamb's testicles, looking like fleshy plums next to the more prosaic rib joints and kidneys. I had made a special journey to Testi to eat these things, and I wasn't about to change my mind, but I do have to admit to a certain amount of trepidation once I was staring at them in the flesh, so to speak. Not exactly the most appetising of items, are they? Pale and swollen, with strange dark slug-like tubes running down the side; it's largely a cultural thing I'm sure, but it's not hard to see why they are somewhat of a rarity at your local butchers or neighbourhood restaurant. It's also not too surprising you don't read much about them on food blogs or in the mainstream press, as attempting to write a review of a plate of testicles without slipping into Carry On territory is a bit of a minefield. Let's see how I do.
But before the main event, a couple of starters. The house hummus was a pretty standard affair - creamy and with good texture but missing anything to lift it out of the ordinary. And despite the house bread being fresh out of the oven it was strangely tasteless - this may be the style in these places, as all Turkish bread I've ever tried has been lacking in this department. However a plate of Albanian-style chopped liver was absolutely wonderful, the moist, char grilled meat balanced with the delicately pickled onions and the dish as a whole lifting these cheap ingredients into something really special. This plate was cleaned in record time.
So I imagine some of you are wondering what marinated, char grilled lamb's testicles taste like. The description 'offaly' is probably a little obvious, but it's true that the meat itself had that dense, smooth texture of, say, brain. Not unpleasant but rather unsatisfying, a little bit like Quorn. What made the dish was the spicy marinade, which created a lovely crust on the little nuggets of meat and added complexity to what I'm guessing raw is a rather uniform, uninteresting product. The main point is, I've tried it now, and didn't hate it, and so now I don't need to again. Job done.
Amongst the other mains brought to our table was a few grilled quail - perfectly seasoned, and benefitting very well from the char from the grill, and some genuinely superbly cooked lamb chops, again seasoned perfectly and boasting a generous blackened crust. Sides were also exceptional - roasted onions in a pomegranate pickle were a fresh and attractive balance of textures and flavours, and a salad was nicely dressed with fresh herbs and black olives.
Now, there were bits here and there that weren't perfect, obviously, but where it mattered Testi delivered in spades - fresh meat, fresh ingredients, well seasoned, well executed, cooked simply and presented honestly. It's everything you'd want in a local restaurant, and although it's not leagues ahead of others in the same style (Tas Firin, No19BC2, etc.) it just does everything across the board well enough to be that much ahead of the pack. I had a lovely evening, and I will certainly be back - only next time, perhaps I'll leave the testicles alone.... Damn, so close.