Our lunch location was chosen out of sympathy for those who suffered so terribly in Turkey recently. It was to be Babaji Pide, Alan Yau’s recently reopened (after a kitchen fire) casual Turkish restaurant in London’s Soho. On the corner of Wardour Street and Shaftesbury Avenue, it is in part homage to Alan’s Turkish wife, Jale.
My host was my old friend Robbie Bargh of The Gorgeous Group that specialises in creating bars and training staff to run them. He has known Yau for many a year.
Lunch was supposed to be jolly, but despite the company, the excellent food and attentive service, we left feeling as sodden and despondent as the tourists shuffling along Shaftesbury Avenue in the rain last week.
There were several reasons for our despondency but the decision of the majority of the citizens of the UK to vote to leave the EU was unquestionably the most significant. The impact of this decision on the British hospitality industry is likely to be severe.
Bargh began by citing as an example the circumstances of Dishoom, the casual Indian restaurant group to which his company has played the role of consultant. Their workforce, currently over 500-strong, is made up of more than a quarter from the Indian subcontinent. The vote to leave not only threatens their right to stay but must also put a question mark over the recruitment of future staff.
This is happening at a time when everyone seems to crave the flavours of India and Asia generally. Dishoom are planning to open in Edinburgh in November as part of a development that will include at least four other restaurants. Where will the staff come from?
There is no point in saying that they can be found from among British-born citizens. There just aren’t enough Brits who have grown up with sufficient knowledge of the cuisines of India (very different from those of Bangladesh and Pakistan). The kitchens of Dishoom’s outposts in Shoreditch and King’s Cross are busier than the original one on St Martin’s Lane but even this one is currently taking double what it did when it first opened and the queues outside this no- booking restaurant are far longer than those outside the Jamie Oliver restaurant next door.
It was time to cheer ourselves up and order something to eat and drink, a relatively easy chore given the scope of the large menu that doubles as a drinks list. On the front is a drawing of a young Turkish woman doing her shopping while the reverse shows a table full of food with men, most of whom are wearing a fez, headed Ottoman Last Supper. Underneath this are seven Turkish red and white wines, one rosé and one sparkling, three rakis and several soft drinks of which we ordered two: Aryan, a salted yoghurt drink served in a small plastic bottle and a glass of fresh watermelon juice.
But before we ordered, there was the opportunity to watch – not so much our fellow diners as the chefs. Bargh had arrived early and been shown to the corner table on the ground floor by the window and behind the pide oven that is this restaurant’s centre of attraction (pide being Turkey’s distinctive flat bread). Here we sat rather mesmerised as a pair of Turkish chefs worked their way through numerous trays of dough, cut them into the required length and weight, and then placed them on long paddles before topping them with various fillings and placing them into the very hot oven. It was work that they seemed born to.
To start with we ordered one pide and three meze: an extremely good humus; a tabouleh in which the parsley had been correctly and finely chopped; and a refreshing plate of taze fasulye, a salad of green beans, tomatoes and paprika. Our pide was called afyon, a moreish mixture of beef sausage, tulum kasar cheese, red chilli and parsley that was spicy, gooey and an excellent accompaniment to our meze. With a main course and two cups of Turkish coffee, elegantly served on a wooden tray with cubes of Turkish delight, the bill came to £45 including service.
With our main course, a succulent dish called tandih, a mound of slow-cooked lamb with pilav rice, a green pepper and half a tomato, we turned to the main reason for our rendezvous, and part of the explanation for Bargh’s normally affable demeanour to turn relatively sour. He wanted to discuss a project in Manchester, our joint home town.
Bargh’s business has expanded significantly over the past decade as hoteliers in particular have looked to revitalise their formerly quiet bar spaces. He has recently returned from Brooklyn, where he is involved in the new hotel being planned there by the Indian-based Oberoi group and next week has a meeting with Michel Roux Jr over plans to convert the underperforming spa in the Langham Hotel into what should be a much more popular London pub (Bargh is responsible for the hotel’s highly successful Artesian bar while Roux has been responsible for the hotel’s restaurant).
But his Manchester project, the Palace Hotel, is based in a building with a chequered history that was built originally for Refuge Assurance by the same architect as Manchester’s magnificent town hall. Refuge Assurance left it in 1987, after which it lay empty until 1996 when it was converted into a hotel. Its then owner was subsequently sold to the Starwood Group, which, recognising its inherent charms (not unlike those of London’s St Pancras Renaissance Hotel), brought Luke Cowdrey and his business partner Justin Crawford on board. Originally DJs, and founders of the Electric Chair club, they have subsequently become successful practitioners in northern hospitality with their Electrik bar in Chorlton and Volta restaurant in Didsbury. They have sensibly called in Robbie’s Gorgeous Group.
While Robbie waxed lyrical about serving afternoon tea in the plush surroundings of the soon-to-be-established Winter Garden within the hotel, my focus remained somewhat more basic. Who, I wondered, would serve these teas and who would be in charge of them, particularly now that we have voted for Brexit, when such a substantial proportion of those in the British hospitality industry were born outside the UK?
This is an issue already of concern to Bargh, with Manchester a striking example of problems that will presumably be experienced throughout the country. Around 27 new restaurants and bars are scheduled to open in Manchester in 2016. D&D restaurants, who manage the likes of London’s German Gym and Skylon as well as Angelica and the Crafthouse in Leeds, are due to open a 9,500 sq ft restaurant high in the Allied London development of No 1 Spinningfields in autumn 2017; and on top of these comes the new Palace Hotel.
The citizens of Manchester voted overwhelmingly on 23 June in favour of remaining in the EU. It is hard to imagine anyone in the city’s burgeoning hospitality industry who did not.
Babaji Pide 53 Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1D 6LB; tel +44 (0)20 3327 3888