Before he became a global brand, Yotam Ottolenghi introduced Londoners to modern Israeli food — a minor trend that has become a phenomenon. His culinary disciples have carried the flag with smart Middle Eastern restaurants like Honey & Co., Jago and Berber & Q.
Bala Baya, a restaurant, bakery and bar, open since January in the buzzing Bankside neighborhood, is the latest and hippest.
Its chef, Eran Tibi, a Tel Aviv-born former tech executive who studied at London’s Le Cordon Bleu, worked under Mr. Ottolenghi for four years. His mentor’s influence shines through Bala Baya’s brawny spins on Mediterranean street food. And crowds are lining up in the narrow alleyway outside the restaurant for extravagantly flavored dishes that transcend their humble roots.
“This food came from Israel, spread its wings and became part of London,” Mr. Tibi said. Fittingly, Bala Baya’s logo is a winged camel.
Afternoon is your best bet to experience Bala Baya without endless waits — the restaurant’s £20 lunch menu is also one of London’s best values. During a recent visit, I tasted luscious, nutty hummus with zippy lemon salsa; yogurt-bathed cauliflower roasted to snappy softness with sumac and pomegranate; and freekeh-stuffed peppers with subtle, sweet-tart sour cherries.
Lunch comes with a house-made take on gazoz, the beloved fizzy drink, reformulated here with herbs and botanicals into palate-tingling refreshers. Mine, infused with quince and fennel, was bright, clean and mildly vegetal.
Spiked with prosecco, the soda also resurfaces on a cocktail menu designed by Ali Reynolds, a star of the city’s mixology scene. The drinks menu, too, draws on Israeli produce: An artichoke julep, for example, is made with sharp Cynar liqueur and pink grapefruit juice.
At dinnertime, Bala Baya gets warmly boisterous, and Mr. Tibi rolls out more elaborate creations like plump whole sea bass with fennel, burnt sage, lemon and anise. “So simple to cook, but so complex in flavor,” he said.
Working with Afroditi Krassa, a Greek-born designer based in London, Mr. Tibi transformed an empty archway under an active railway line near Southwark station into an airy, Bauhaus-riffing fantasy that conjures his hometown; trains still rumble overhead. Along with tableware from a Jaffa flea market and breeze blocks for an intricate upstairs wall, Mr. Tibi imported bright terrazzo slabs from a Haifa factory. “I wanted to walk on floors that remind me of home,” he said.
His brashest import, though, may be the gleaming pita oven in his open kitchen. Jagum, the Israeli manufacturer that built equipment for his father’s Tel Aviv bakery, created a souped-up version for Mr. Tibi. The oven can crank out more than 1,000 warm, pillowy pitas an hour; that should come in handy as Mr. Tibi follows Mr. Ottolenghi’s footsteps into wholesale and retail later this year.