Friday, 3 March 2017
So many great innovations create their own market. I remember hearing about the concept of the Apple iPad before it launched, and immediately dismissing it - why would I need an oversized iPhone? How would that thing fit in my pocket? Wouldn't I feel a bit stupid carrying it around? And then it arrives and you try it and suddenly it all makes sense. "If I asked people what they wanted", another tech pioneer Henry Ford never said, "they'll just say 'a faster horse'".
So I didn't think I needed Yosma. I liked Turkish cuisine in London exactly how it was, thank you very much, from the ocakbasi grills of Stoke Newington and charcoal pits of Green Lanes to the mangals of South London, I like my pomegranete and grilled onion salad and my hummus and flatbread and strange pink tarama and, of course, lamb chops and kofte kebabs fresh from the coals, and why would you want anything more? If it ain't broke, and all that.
Well, it turns out I was wrong. Completely and utterly wrong. But it took a little while to realise how wrong I was, as my first visit to Yosma revealed nothing too far from convention. This chunky, accurately-seasoned house hummus, for example - excellent hummus, certainly, the match of any else I'd tried in London. But it was just hummus, and I know where I am with hummus. It came with some white bread, dusted with herbs and oil and I knocked it all back quite happily. I like hummus.
And then these lamb chops, in a wonderful light lemon-herb marinade, cooked to perfect pink inside and with the barest touch of smoke and char from the Josper, they were - again - the platonic ideal of a lamb chop dish, utterly faultless and a delight to eat. But I know where I am with lamb chops. I like lamb chops.
Clearly, Yosma were doing many things right but in the way these things sometimes go, my faultless-yet-familiar lunch soon faded into memory and the place dropped off my radar for a few months. And perhaps that would have been it if not for the steady stream of positive chatter about from friends and critics, ranging from "extremely positive" to "utterly-blown-away" and ensuring a return visit was all but inevitable. Never underestimate the power of FOMO - Fear Of Missing Out.
One wet evening in March, then, I sat down with a friend in the window of Yosma and ordered a selection of dishes that made a complete mockery of my conviction that Turkish food in London had reached some kind of endgame. For example, the above dish of pastırma, cured beef. Treating this densely-flavoured bit of charcuterie like an Italian would carpaccio is a touch of genius, and in fact makes more sense with cured rather than raw beef as the excellent olive oil, capers and scattered nduja-like chilli paste stood up to and highlighted the pastırma rather than masking it. Really, very clever stuff.
Hamsi, fried anchovies, were either some kind of freakish boneless variety or had been cooked using techniques new to modern science, as we were able to eat the whole animals, nose-to-tail, without a single annoying pin-bone tickling our throats. Which was enough of a novelty even apart from their wonderful earthy flavour, and the intriguing tarator (walnut and garlic sauce) to dip them in.
Yosma apparently make their own sucuk sausages, and to fantastic effect. The texture of loose mince, the strong beefy flavours and punchy chilli oil is like nothing I've tried before, probably best described as a cross between pork pie filling and chorizo (only with beef, obviously), and something that is surely unique to Yosma. At least, I don't know anyone else making their own sucuk. And as if that wasn't enough, they came with what I'll have to describe as perfect roast potatoes, thick of crust and smooth of interior, turning the dish into a kind of mini Turkish Sunday roast.
Mantı, Turkish dumplings, could perhaps have done with a little more filling but still went down very easily, with their good al-dente casings and yoghurt & chilli dressing. You can see the effort that goes into these by wandering over to the open kitchens, where there are often hundreds of them, all painstakingly made by hand, lined up in neat rows on trays ready for the water. It doesn't necessarily follow that anyone going to the trouble making their own dumplings is better than anywhere that doesn't, except it does generally seem to be the case, doesn't it?
Chicken wings were perhaps the only instance where Yosma's otherwise masterful command of seasoning and spicing let them down. They were beautifully cooked wings, and clearly high quality chicken with good, strong, big bones, but I'm afraid the breadcrumb coating was quite salty, which distracted from what would otherwise been a top bit of poultry work.
Yosma brush their flatbread with lamb fat - well, why wouldn't you - and so I hardly need to tell you it tastes absolutely incredible. It's just a light touch of the fat, enough for it to taste vaguely meaty but not be overwhelming, and a scattering of sesame seeds and interesting herbs further add depth. You can tell a lot about a place by its house bread, about their attention to detail and attitude to hospitality generally. Yosma passes this particular test - and so many others - with flying colours.
I am rarely enjoying myself so much after this much food that I even consider dessert, so it's a testament to how well everything had gone that I was determined to try as much of the menu as possible. Yosma is one of those rare places that approach everything with such style and intelligence that it makes you think it's impossible to order badly; that everything on the (reasonably large) menu is probably worth trying. That's certainly true of this Kűnefe dessert, sort of like a large baklava (sugar and pistachio and shredded wheat and, er, mozzarella cheese) which is as unusual (in London at least) as it is enjoyable, the syrupy bits of crunchy pastry mixing remarkably well with the ropes of stringy cheese.
I should also say a special word on the service, which was as good as anywhere I've been in recent times. Our waiter was engaging, attentive and great company, knowing everything about every inch of the menu and an expert in Turkish cuisine generally. My bill carries the name "Catalin" so if that was him, very well done indeed - an utter masterclass in front of house work. Awards, or at least greater recognition, surely beckon.
So, yes, it turns out I was wrong. Completely and utterly wrong. Fabulously wrong. I did need Yosma, and so do you, and so does London. This is Turkish cuisine reinvented for a new generation, never self-consciously experimental or deliberately obscure, but innovative in the best possible way - fresh and exciting but still accessible. Where dishes are familiar, such as the lamb chops or hummus, they're simply the very best they can be with no extra fuss. And when they try their hand at crafting traditional Turkish dishes using the finest local ingredients, the results - such as those extraordinary sucuk - are blinding. Yosma is the modern Turkish restaurant I didn't know I needed and didn't ask for. And yet here it is anyway, and now all of a sudden I can't live without it.