Chef Esra Muslu invokes the tastes of the Ottoman Empire in her new restaurant / Culture , Food & Drink
Chef Esra Muslu invokes the tastes of the Ottoman Empire in her new restaurant

Istanbul’s star chef opens a Turkish-inspired eatery on London’s Carnaby Street

Istanbul’s star chef opens a Turkish-inspired eatery on London’s Carnaby Street

Blue tiles and metallic hues at the new Zahter restaurant on London’s Carnaby Street are intended to invoke the restaurants dotted along the Bosphorus. Head chef Esra Muslu grew up in Istanbul, a city with hot grills, food offerings and spice markets around every corner. She quickly became the star of the city’s culinary scene, opening four of her own restaurants (Backyard, Auf, Kauf and Unter) before taking the role of executive chef at Soho House Istanbul. From there, she moved to London to head up the kitchens at Soho House’s Shoreditch House, and was most recently head chef of Yotam Ottolenghi’s Spitalfields restaurant. “I learned so much working with Ottolenghi and with the Soho House restaurants,” Esra says. “When I arrived in London I didn’t know any producers or suppliers, or how the city worked. But it was always my goal to open a restaurant of my own.”

Zahter (which takes its name from a thyme-like herb found in southern Turkey) sits on the corner of Newburgh Street, just off Carnaby Street and the busy thoroughfares of Oxford Street, Regent Street and Soho. Esra was looking for a venue with an “old-world feel”. The space she found here has incredibly high ceilings and original cornicing, and she immediately knew it would make the perfect home for her first London restaurant.

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Interior designer Merve Demir Kargaci of Monu Studio helped her create an interior that captured the classic feel of informal restaurants in Istanbul.

Turquoise tones, marble textures as well as hints of copper in the bar stools and the lights above the bar counter are all typical of Istanbul’s restaurants. Oak wood counters create window seats, while the visual centrepiece is the blue hexagonal-tiled counter that faces the open kitchen and the flames of the fire. “I love open kitchens,” Esra notes. “They allow for interaction with the customers, I can see what they enjoy and they can chat to us about the food. I like to recommend mezzes that will complement each other.”

Everything in Zahter is cooked in either the wood-burning or charcoal ovens and the menu brings together dishes from all over Turkey, reimagined in Esra’s kitchen. “Cooking with coals gives everything this uniquely smokey flavour,” says Esra. “That beautiful charred effect means that bread is crisp on top and fish keeps its moisture. The fire affects all the food differently.”


The restaurant’s double-height ceilings maximise the natural light entering the space. On the ground floor, diners sit at counters, either watching the theatre of the kitchen or on window seats that look out onto the vibey central London location. A second floor offers additional tables, with plush banquette seating and antique-looking brass lamps. The top floor will, in time, be turned into an events space and cookery school.

Menu offerings change daily, depending on seasonal ingredients. “Some people come expecting Turkish food to be very meat-heavy, and I love surprising them with all the vegetables we use.” A whole globe artichoke is served with spiced rice stuffed between its segments, a broad bean dip is topped with thin slices of raki-soaked grapes, a smoked and skinned aubergine melts at the slightest touch of a fork, and pomegranate jewels decorate almost everything.

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Seafood comes in the form of whole-grilled fish and tiger prawns, while meat-lovers can order beef dumplings, ribs or slow roast lamb. As for the baklava, everyone in London is talking about it. “Some of the recipes I still use came from my grandmother and my mother. The gözleme ( spinach and feta breakfast pastries) and the sahanda yumurta (fried eggs served with woodfired pizza-style bread and chillies) are my grandmother’s recipes, and people love them. So many of the dressings and spice mixes are ones I learned in my mother’s kitchen.”

An eclectic mix of serving dishes, handmade by artisans in Turkey, add to the feeling of being in an intimate, home kitchen. “I like to cook what I want to eat, I want my customers to feel as if they are guests in my own home and are being served my favourite food, on dishes I would have in my own cupboards.”

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