There’s disastrous potential in trying to create a restaurant that feels like a nightclub. Done right, it could be upbeat, exciting and vibrant. But done wrong, it could mean pounding noise, lots of shouting and the vague sense that someone who’s tripping balls on weapons-grade MDMA is about to fall face first into your baba ganoush.
So full credit to Bala Baya: a Tel Aviv-style restaurant set in a Southwark railway arch with something of a clubby vibe. The volume’s pitched loud enough that the constant mix of piano house and minimal techno is buzzy, but not so loud that conversation is difficult. It’s lively, energetic and chic: the kind of place you’d go for dinner with mates when you’re a bit tiddly. It also feels genuinely cool – and this is despite every man in the restaurant being a 40-something in an immaculately pressed shirt and suit trousers.
The food also manages to turn your expectations on their head. Little Middle Eastern-inspired sharing dishes include ingredients that sound like they’ve been picked blindfolded, but they’ve been turned into cooking that’s clever and delicious. Crispy, Sticky, Crunchy turned out to be phenomenal: crusted Korean fried chicken topped with houmous, nuts and kimchi (I did warn you about the ingredients). Spring Salmon was like gravadlax on crack – a beautifully balanced plate combining oily fish with beetroot crisps, rhubarb and little jellies of dill and lemon sour enough to make your eyes water. Chickpea and Ox was an insanely creamy houmous, topped by melty oxtail and a layer of sweet tomatoes, then served with incredibly smoky, puffy pitta. Every dish was surprising and delicious.
Downsides: the kitchen forgot a couple of our dishes, but the free cocktail shooters more than made up for it while we waited. And the sweet, nutty crumb atop the tea-smoked, yoghurt-injected aubergine in a dish of ‘aubergine tea’ made it a bit desserty for my liking. But that, basically, is it. The food is astonishing, the atmosphere is great and it’s a brilliant place to go with friends. It’s a party, with food. Get down, and get down.