A Beast Of A Feast | Bala Baya, Old Union Yard Arches, Bankside London
Bala Baya, situated in the relatively new Old Union Yard Arches in Southwark, had been on our radar since it opened in mid-January – promising ‘authentic Middle Eastern cuisine in an environment designed to recall the spirit of Tel Aviv.’
Now we’re not experts on Israeli food, in fact we don’t know our sabich from our bamia, despite Saff being really keen on the idea of visiting Israel. What we do know is just how much we enjoy eating the cuisine of this region. Our taste buds were first treated to this onslaught of fresh bold flavours when we visited The Palomar on Rupert Street which also provides a menu influenced by the rich cultures of southern Spain, north Africa and the Levant.
Bala Baya’s Israeli-born head chef Eran Tibi‘s food is rooted in tradition but with a progressive and modern take. His love of Tel Aviv and its many unique eating habits has inspired him to create a menu that mimics a day in the life of the ‘White City,’ therefore bringing the raw creativity of Tel Aviv’s hip, all-day eateries to London.
Bala Baya really embraces its role as an all day restaurant, a bakery in the morning then a fast-paced pitta kiosk with a sit down mezzanine at lunch and buzzy restaurant at night. But what we were here to try was the almost too good to be true Saturday brunch menu.
Our invitation for their new bottomless brunch stated that we ‘arrive hungry’ and reading between the lines, this Israeli feast is enough to satisfy even the most ravenous appetite – bring it on, I love a challenge. So after an early light breakfast we arrived at Bala Baya at 1pm all psyched up to take on the brunchy banquet.
The restaurant is split over two floors, upstairs being more formal than downstairs (only by a little) mainly due to the fact that downstairs has an open kitchen. This is where we wanted to sit, close to where the magic happens, to soak up some of the energy, atmosphere and intense smells flowing from behind the counter.
Everything seemed fast-paced at Bala Baya, not in a rushed way – in an exciting way. Even the waitresses were darting around, how they dash up and down those stairs without dropping anything is incredible. This hustle and bustle, along with the occasional flash of fire from the kitchen grill, simply adds to the theatre.
So the brunch deal is unlimited small plates and their amazing grilled lemon and thyme pitta for just £8pp – we’d actually pay the £8 just for the pitta! ‘Wow!’ I hear you cry, ‘what a fantastic offer, what’s the catch?’ Not a catch as such, more of a condition. You can only order the unlimited small plates if you also have one of the main dishes too, so try not to pad yourself out too much on your ‘starters’.
Of course these small plates aren’t really starters in the traditional sense, they also compliment the main dishes perfectly and as they can be constantly topped up – you could even have them with a dessert if you so desire (we did.)
Now, or so it seems, brunch wouldn’t be brunch without bubbles but what they’ve done here is to make their own Prosecco cocktail – the Gazozini (£19pp bottomless/£8 a glass.) This Gazozini contains a mix of Prosecco (obviously) with botanical and fruit infused Gazoz (the Turkish word for sparkling water or lemonade). We had the citrus and thyme option, not only refreshing but the acidic fruit and bubbles were a real palate cleanser allowing all the different flavours from the small plates the shine through.
You get 13 – yes 13, of these dishes (some smaller than others) in the deal and they all turn up at once, so be prepared for a very crowded table. To make it a little bit easier (for me and you) we’ve listed our highlights.
1) Grilled lemon and thyme pitta: if only all pitta was like this – a crisp glazed crust hiding a light, soft centre.
2) Strained yoghurt: the consistency and flavour of a very mild cream cheese, sprinkled with finely chopped chives and sat in a puddle of za’atar oil.
3) Grilled Turkish chillies: these should come with a warning! They are eye-wateringly hot, the drizzle of lemon juice does absolutely nothing to quench the heat.
4) Aubergine and sweet potato: smokey and sweet with a sprinkling of crushed walnuts.
5) Pickles, olives and feta: another dish I had to myself due to Saff’s dislike of cheese. Mild acidic peppers and salty feta, perfect – well for me anyway.
6) Grilled beets, mint and pistachio: another fairly subtle dish. Surprisingly the fresh mint didn’t overpower the beetroot, an interesting combination. Plus an easy(ish) dish to copy and make at home.
7) Chopped liver and crispy onions: this was my favourite, a rich, dense pâté that partnered the grilled bread perfectly. This was the first to all go and the first dish to me re-ordered (along with more pitta.)
8) Harissa butternut: soft butternut squash coated in hot, aromatic harissa paste with a little extra sweetness courtesy of the sticky maple syrup.
If all that wasn’t enough now it was time to make room (both on the table and in our bellies) for our main courses. Saff wasn’t really prepared and hadn’t scanned the menu as thoroughly as she usually does. So when asked by our charming waiter what she’d like to order she had only got as far as the first dish on the list.
So under pressure, she ordered the Yemeni pancake and egg (£13) – a regular pancake it wasn’t. Rather made from a batter this was more like rolled filo pastry filled with tomato, cardamom, chilli salsa and feta cheese (Saff skipped the cheese part.) This was sat atop grilled aubergine and an onion salad and drizzled with green tahini cream with a soft(ish) boiled egg on the side.
I, on the other hand, had studied the menu and had my sights firmly set on the interestingly named Beef short rib bonfire roast (£18). A big hunk of blackened beef alongside aubergine and tomatoes, a huge portion of polenta mash and a jug of sesame beef sauce. As soon as the dish arrived it was apparent why they call it a bonfire roast, for a bonfire is what it resembles.
At the base of this fire the polenta mash forms the white ash, then the blackened beef the charcoal, the aubergine the wood and finally a flash of flame provided by the tomatoes. Well it sure looked stunning, although the polenta mash was a little bland, good job lashings of the delicious sesame beef juice was at hand to pep it all up.
We were advised by our waitress to save a little space for dessert, at least to share one as they were ‘simply amazing’ – she wasn’t exaggerating either. There were only two desserts on the menu so we wouldn’t really be doing our ‘job’ properly if we didn’t try them both.
I had the White cheesecake (£8) although it wasn’t really a traditional cheesecake, I dislike the term deconstructed but that is exactly what it was – a very pretty and extremely delicious deconstructed cheesecake. White peach in a sweet syrup with ginger, a black sesame crumble, a big dollop of silky white chocolate and cream cheese topped with beautiful edible flowers.
Saff’s Burnt babka (£8), was simply incredible and a sweet tooth’s fantasy. The babka (a rolled, twisted and baked sweetened bread) is filled with a sesame and pistachio spread and placed on the grill to give an amazing sweet sticky crust. Served with stewed plums and a whisked crème anglaise this could possibly be one of the best desserts we’ve ever had.
Our waiter came over to clear our table and asked whether we enjoyed our brunch. We explained that we were so full that we could barely move. A huge smile crept across his face, for this is the Israeli way. He explained that if his mother invited you over for a feast she would load the table and wouldn’t be happy until her guests were full to bursting. Well if that’s the aim of Bala Baya then it was mission accomplished. So when they say arrive hungry, you best arrive hungry.
Arch 25, Old Union Yard Arches
229 Union Street, London SE1 0LR
Telephone: 020 80017015
Book a table online
Monday – Friday: 12:00pm – 11:30pm
Saturday: 10:30am – 4:00pm and 6:00pm – 11:30pm
Sunday: 10:30am – 5:00pm
Nearest station: Southwark: 1 min walk
We ate as guests of Bala Baya, this does not affect our review in any way.
We always write with complete honesty.