The last time we ate at Zara, several years ago, it was hot enough to sit on that somewhat uninspiring stretch of pavement by the bus terminus, Starbucks to the left, chemist to the right. The meal was pleasant enough, but we still never quite understood why Zara was so rammed at weekends.
It took us half a decade to return on a windy Tuesday night. Expecting it to be empty we were nonetheless confronted with a full dining room. You’d really never guess there was such a lively (if somewhat silver-haired) scene in South End Green bang in the middle of the week.
Zara is named after a town in Sivas, Turkey, where the owner, Hasan Demir, grew up. Many of the dishes are inspired by his childhood, and aim “to evoke an image of the food and life there”. He’s doing something right: the restaurant has been at the same spot in South End Green for over fifteen years.
On the website they make a big play about the fact that 80% of customers are regulars, which I can believe. On our visit Demir hopped from table to table, sharing a joke here, planting a peck on the cheeks of a beaming matron there – and topping up empty glasses generously.
The menu is packed with hot and cold mezze options but, tempting though the likes of humus or grilled hellim were, we pared the meal down to a main each. Like I said, it was only a Tuesday after all.
It’s not breaking any news to say that the food is traditional: a lamb shish delivered smoky-flavoured meatiness, the rice expertly cooked – “probably the best I’ve ever had,” whispered the companion.
But the classic dish worth spotlighting in this brief column is the chicken iskender, one of the more famous foodie inventions of northwestern Turkey, which takes its name from its inventor, Iskender Efendi, who lived in Bursa in the late 19th century.
Lean chunks are skewered and grilled over charcoal, served on a bed of pita bread with tomato sauce, then drizzled with butter. An outsize dollop of yogurt adds further smoothness: it’s a lick-the-plate-clean winner.
Arguably more impressive, in fact, was the wine. Yakut – ruby in Turkish – was extraordinarily good at £16.95: well-balanced with soft, ripe notes, it matched the grilled meats effortlessly.
One thing’s for sure: we’ll be making a return trip way before, um, 2022.