In his book The Man Who Ate The World, Jay Rayner tells a story about how, as a greedy 11-year-old, he spent night after night during a school trip to Switzerland happily eating snails alone in the empty dining room of an old hotel. I agree with Mr Rayner about a lot of things – after all, I too was a greedy pre-teen whose carried their unashamed gluttony well into their adult life. And I was also probably just about precocious enough that I might have decided that I wanted snails or foie gras or Poulet de Bresse or some other delicacy badly enough on a school trip to the continent to head off in search of it. But there’s just no way I would have gone on my own. In fact I think, a deserted restaurant is one of the saddest places on Earth. The whole point on a restaurant, after all, is to celebrate the act of eating. They’re supposed to be filled with people enjoying themselves and taking part in an act which, basically unchanged, people have been doing for thousands of years. So when a restaurant’s empty it seems like an insult to everything that I hold dear, not to mention basic human nature and evolution. And it probably means the food’s shitty anyway.
Which means that I’m hardly jumping with excitement when he wander into Uludag on a Saturday night and find it completely deserted. The Fox hadn’t been deserted – in fact it was busy enough that we had to fight to get a table. And the other Turkish restaurant down the road looked busy enough. Even the terrifying Indian place just next door to the Haggerston had a smattering of people in – which for them should prompt wild celebrations as I’ve never seen anyone in there before. It’s clearly not that the local residents round E-8te Towers are staying indoors and not eating out tonight. So what’s wrong with Uludag?
It’s certainly not the table cloths, which are some of the best I’ve ever seen.
But looking at the menu it’s immediately clear that the restaurant is a little bit too expensive for a start. Starters come in at around £8 and mains are more like £12. Which for what’s a glorified kebab shop is pretty steep, especially when there are the places up above the Junction what are amazing and half the price. Things aren’t improved by the service. Considering we’re the only customers that come in during the whole 90 minutes we’re there, you could call it lackadaisical if you were being generous. Most of the staff seem to spend the time studiously ignoring us and gathering around the extractor next to the grill.
All of which would be forgivable if the food was amazing. Sadly it never manages to elevate itself above average. Our starters of mix mezze and some grilled Halloumi are both passable if unremarkable. Then again, how hard is it to arrange some cold dips on a plate, dump some oily stuffed vine leaves and beans down and heat up some bread. Ditto to grilling some cheese and plonking it onto a bed of limp lettuce.
Nat’s main – a couple of koftas on a bed of rice – is similarly standard. Sure it’s not terrible, but then again it is a bit gristly and not that flavourful. I’m sure you could find similar at any kebab shop across the country. The only thing that is vaguely impressive about it is that somehow it had managed to have been grilled on a proper ockbasi grill without getting any of the benefits in terms of taste or texture. That takes some effort.
While Nat’s food was average, mine was actively bad. It was a mess of finely chopped lamb and red peppers. It tasted of nothing but fat but did go a long way towards explaining the emptiness of the restaurant.
There are much, much finer Turkish restaurants less than half a mile up the road. If only these places were actually on Kingsland Road and then I could tell you about them. Instead, I’ll just say avoid going to Uludag and don’t listen to anyone who tells you eating in an empty restaurant can be anything other than a disaster.