The tastes of Selin Kiazim's homeland are the inspiration behind her wildly successful restaurant, says Katie Pathiaki
Selin Kiazim is on a mission to revolutionise Turkish cuisine. Whether that's through modern interpretations of traditional recipes or through dishes stumbled upon by accident, she is embracing her Turkish-Cypriot heritage and running at full throttle.
Even the bathroom does a fantastic job of transporting you to another country, with delicate blue tiles taking prime place on the wall. "We brought those back from a market in Istanbul," says Kiazim, adding that she wants to remind visitors of their holidays.
Oklava began life as a pop-up. Kiazim was cooking Antipodean cuisine at Peter Gordon's Kopapa in Covent Garden in London in 2013, but she broke away to embark on a journey of supper clubs and residencies around London.
"From the day I left, I had the intention of opening my own restaurant," she says. "It gave me an opportunity to put together a menu that was going in a direction I wanted and it let me see if people liked the food. The more of those I did, the more confidence it gave me."
It all came together for Kiazim when she took on a three-week residency at Carousel in Marylebone - the event was sold out every night. Around the same time she met business partner Laura Christie, former operations manager at Salt Yard Group, who oversees the front of house operations alongside the finance and admin behind the scenes.
"I wanted to open up somewhere that was as original as you can get in this day and age," Kiazim says. "You see lots of Turkish restaurants making kebabs at reasonable prices, but no one is exploring the other side."
The most popular dish on the menu, both at the residencies and in the restaurant, is the chilli-roast cauliflower with red onion, parsley and pistachio, which Kiazim created entirely by accident.
"The first time I went to Istanbul I went to a market and met a little old man who made pepper paste in his village. It was the most intense paste - better than what we can get here - so I brought some back with me.
"One day I was at home and wanted to make dinner. I opened my cupboards and all I had was the pepper sauce, a cauliflower and some parsley. I decided to smear the paste on top and roast the cauliflower. It tasted good!"
The dish is now made by blackening small chunks of cauliflower coated in pepper sauce on a plancha grill. It's served with lemon juice, olive oil and garlic. The freshness of the lemon juice complements the heat of the cauliflower.
The majority of Kiazim's dishes are influenced by traditional recipes. For example, the grilled, house-cured lamb breast on toast is a modernised Cypriot dish. The lamb is cured with salt, sugar and dried wild oregano, and smoked over a charcoal fire. It's cut thinly and served on toast with oregano and olive juice, which soaks into the bread. "When I was younger, my grandad would make sundried lamb, which is salty and jerky-like. The lamb or goat is salted and dried outside on the flat roof in intense heat. It's a flavour of home."
The whipped feta with candied pumpkin and chilli crostini is inspired by the markets in Turkey, where candied vegetables, fruit and nuts are eaten as a teatime treat with coffee or as a dessert. "You would never see it served with anything savoury, especially in a traditional sense," she says.
Surprisingly, the wine list is 100% Turkish, which even Kiazim says is a bold decision: "There's some great stuff out there and it's a really up and coming wine country. We want to carry on putting its wines on our menu."
Finding her niche with the reinvention of Turkish cuisine has held her in good stead. A kitchen of six full-time chefs turn over more than 500 covers a week - no doubt helped by a rave review from restaurant critic Grace Dent and a positive, if measured, piece by Jay Rayner.
With a name like Oklava, it would have been surprising to learn that there wasn't a meaning behind it, and Kiazim explains that it's Turkish for rolling pin. With plans for a second restaurant one day and a cookbook due to be released next year, Oklava is certainly rolling.
From the menu
- Grilled hellim, lemon, London honey and oregano £5.50
- Baharat bread and Medjool date butter £3
- Chilli-roast cauliflower, red onion, parsley and pistachios £9
- Poached skate salad with grilled onions, Cyprus potatoes and pomegranate dressing £9.50
- Roasted pumpkin flatbread, mozzarella, cemen crumbs and tulum with a Cornish free-range egg £16.50
- Seftali kebab, red onion salad and lemon £10
- Baharat-spiced pork belly, sweet pickled apricots, garlic cabbage and marinated leeks £12.50
74 Luke Street, London EC2A 4PY
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