You’d have thought in the current climate that troubles with staffing or the food supply chain would pose the greatest challenge to a chef opening their first London restaurant. But for Turkish chef Esra Muslu, who made her debut in the capital late last year with Zahter in Soho, finding the right plates and bowls proved to be a far bigger task.
“That was probably the hardest part,” says Muslu, as she reflects on the restaurant’s launch. “We sourced everything from Turkey, and I spent a lot of time looking for the exact designs and styles I wanted. And once we found it all, we had to bring it all over to London; it was a big challenge.”
When Muslu says she sourced everything from Turkey, she means everything. From crockery, furniture and kitchen equipment to lights and linens, nearly the entire contents of Zahter have been shipped from the chef’s homeland.
Aesthetically reminiscent of Turkish taverns and mezze houses but through a modern lens, the restaurant occupies a corner site on Foubert's Place in Carnaby that used to function as a clothing warehouse. It’s a striking space to walk in to, particularly in the daytime when the large bay windows illuminate the hand-painted turquoise tiles, which stylistically date back to the Ottoman Empire. The central bar features countertops made from organic oak wood and marble, and looks out on the theatrical open kitchen that comprises a central wood and charcoal oven. And then there’s the lights, which have been crafted out of clean-cut brass intended to ‘modernise existing textures and build an elegant persona’ throughout the restaurant.
Split across four floors, Zahter is big, but it feels appealingly warm and intimate. The ground floor bar features both counter and window seating, with a substantial al-fresco space also available; while the first floor serves as the main dining room, with table seating for 40 covers. Upstairs again sits an event space and further still a studio that will in time be used to host cookery classes.
For Muslu, who was previously head chef at Ottolenghi Spitalfields, taking on such a prime piece of real estate for her first solo venture in the capital is a statement of her intent. “It’s a perfect site for what I want to do,” she says. “I first found it two years ago and fell in love when I saw it. We signed the lease just as Covid hit, and thankfully were able to hold on to it through the lockdowns. Having the right space was really important to me; it informed the whole concept.”
Despite serving dishes inspired from across Turkey, Zahter is billed as a celebration of ‘Istanbulite’ cuisine – a distinction that Muslu, who hails from Istanbul, was keen to specify from the beginning. “When you travel in Turkey, the food changes regionally; but in Istanbul it’s a huge melting pot of food from across the country,” she explains.
“I grew up in Istanbul, and I love the food scene there. It’s a city that has amazing places to eat on every corner, and the flavours and dishes are so different and wide ranging. I wanted Zahter to mirror that.”
Muslu has put emphasis on exploring some of that regionality in Turkish cuisine through her menu. The food of Gaziantep (known colloquially as Antep) in the westernmost part of Turkey's South-eastern Anatolia region, for example, has inspired a number of Zahter’s dishes, including the kuru dolma that sees spiced, sundried peppers stuffed with freekeh; and the enginar dolmasi, a whole artichoke flower that’s packed with spiced rice and topped with roasted almonds.
Zahter’s menu is succinct, split between cold and hot mezze options that’s followed by a selection of larger sharing platters. Smaller plates include muhammara, a dip that mixes leblebi, roasted peppers and pomegranate molasses; gavurdag salad of tomato, cucumber, urfa chilli and walnuts; and ali nazik, an earthy combination of aubergine and yoghurt that’s topped with minced beef.
Larger plates, meanwhile, include a whole sea bream that’s been deboned, cooked over charcoal and dressed in chimichurri; chicken thighs spiced with toum and spring onion; and lamb meatballs served on a bed of beans, red onion and mixed herbs.
While there will of course be stalwarts, particularly the likes of the pide that’s drizzled with a fresh zahter oil, and the dips, many of the dishes are expected to change regularly. “We’re constantly tweaking or altering plates based on what’s available and in season. The menu is very much a reflection of what I like to eat back home – I like punchy flavours and I never eat out of season.
“Having this approach is always something I have in my kitchens, as it means there’s consistent energy among the team. It challenges us daily and gives us space to play around with different ideas and flavours.”
Muslu first came to London when she was 18 to study, but subsequently left to do a degree in culinary arts at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia. After that she returned to Istanbul where she opened her first restaurant in 2007, a fine-dining concept called Moreish located in the city’s Beyoğlu district.
The restaurant proved popular, and eventually led to Muslu to form a partnership with other chefs to launch a collection of six more restaurants, all primarily concentrated in Beyoğlu. They include Auf, Backyard, Kauf and Unter, which all continue to operate today, although without her involvement.
“I’ve never wanted to just serve the same dishes at each restaurant I’ve opened, and that’s carried through to Zahter”
Muslu describes each restaurant as having its own distinct focus and identity, something she was keen to replicate with Zahter. “Every restaurant I’ve opened has been completely different,” she says. “The look has always been unique and so has the menu. I’ve never wanted to just serve the same dishes at each restaurant I’ve opened, and that’s carried through to Zahter.”
A personal project
For Muslu, Zahter is her opportunity to show London’s diners what the breadth of Turkish cuisine looks like. “I love my country and our cultural cooking, and I don’t think you can find it enough in this city. Often Turkish restaurants here are just synonymous with kebabs. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s a huge part of our culture. But there is so much more variety to explore.”
By no means is she the first chef in London to offer a more individual and contemporary take on her country’s cuisine. Over in Shoreditch, Selin Kiazim has been serving her own ‘culturally-grounded’ interpretation of Turkish dining since 2015 with Oklava; and on Beak Street in Soho, little more than a kofta’s throw away from Zahter, is chef Civan Er and restaurateur Cem Bilge’s Yeni, which opened in 2019.
More generally, London’s Turkish restaurant scene is concentrated in suburban neighbourhoods in the north and north east of the city, where large Turkish communities have long resided. And there too are signs of a changing landscape. In Dalston, popular ocakbasi restaurant Mangal 2 recently overhauled its approach to create a more gastronomically ambitious, ingredient-led menu that received plaudits from Observer critic Jay Rayner, who labelled it “brave and compelling and properly delicious”.
The success of places like Mangal 2 and Oklava proves there is a broader appetite for this more experimental approach to Turkish cooking, and in some respects Zahter feels tellingly similar. Prices, for example, are certainly much higher than you would expect to find in the traditional Turkish Grills of, say, Stoke Newington or Green Lanes, with smaller mezze plates primarily ranging from £10 to £15, and larger platters pitched largely between the £20 and £30 mark.
“I love my country and our cultural cooking, and I don’t think you can find it enough in London”
Muslu has worked hard, though, to ensure Zahter has its own distinct sense of self, and it could fairly be described as her most personal restaurant project to date. Many of the recipes used have been handed down to her by her mother, with the menu intended to in part represent the sort of food that would be served in homes across Istanbul.
“In Turkey, what you eat in a restaurant is very different to what people prepare at home. And I want to show a bit of what that is like. To have dishes that appear very simple in their presentation, but with complex flavours that can really get people’s attention.”
Thoughts for the future
Having stepped away from the group of restaurants she helped launch, Muslu partnered with Nick Jones to work as head chef at Soho House Istanbul, a role which brought her to London at Shoreditch House. From there she joined Yotam Ottolenghi’s kitchen team as the head chef at Ottolenghi Spitalfields, where she stayed until moving on to focus on launching Zahter, which she first established in 2018 as a pop up at chef residency restaurant Carousel. For the opening of Zahter she's partnered with her sister, Yasemin Efe; and Simay Kamer, who owns Qurabiye Patisserie in Istanbul.
Muslu speaks warmly of her time with Ottolenghi, saying it was fundamental in helping her prepare to open her own place in the capital. “It was like a school, I learned so much from him,” she says, enthusiastically. “I didn’t know what to do when I moved back here, and he showed me the ropes and offered a different perspective on being a restaurateur.”
Ottolenghi, of course, has built an empire for himself in the capital, with several locations now found across the city. Having previously grown her own restaurant estate in Istanbul, surely it’s not unreasonable to think Muslu could create something similar here?
“I would love to have that, but it’s too soon to be thinking along those lines at the moment. I want time to let Zahter develop before thinking about what to do next.”
Muslu adds that while she has ideas for other restaurants in the capital, any expansion would be determined by what sites were available to her. “That’s the most important thing,” she continues. “It doesn’t need to be too big or small but, like with Zahter, it has to feel right.”