When I found PIDE while walking along Charlotte street, a part of me could not help but quietly begin to crave one of my favourite childhood cuisines . When I grew up in Dubai, despite our occasional ventures to new and exciting restaurants, we only visited four or five that we deemed to be the best in the city. If we wanted Chinese we would go to Chinaman, Japanese to Bentoya, Italian to Capri, Thai to Lemongrass, Korean to Seoul Garden, and finally, for Turkish to Istanbul Flower. On every weekend, we would go through the roll and depending on our appetites, mostly mine, we’d go to one of these – for a good fifteen or so years (a little longer for my parents).
And we’d pretty much order the same things every time, usually leaving just one dish ordered to be experimented with. At the Turkish place, the first Istanbul Flower by the Safest Way (I don’t know if this still exists), we’d order four or so dishes, irrespective of whether we had guests with us, and try something new for the fifth. We’d have the iskander, sometimes chicken, sometimes lamb, sometimes mixed, the long kebab beyti, a large mezze, and then we’d bring on the pides. Turkish pizzas as everyone is so keen to call them, magnificently buttered, bread-shaped like long boats with traditional Turkish toppings that perhaps mirror those seen on pizzas in the broadest forms: cheese, sauce and meat. But there was a reason why one had to specifically suggest Turkish over Italian back home; in fact, I do not remember ever having a craving for both simultaneously, they were too different.
Firstly, the bread is not as elastic as traditional pizza doughs. It is crisp in varying degrees, the smaller the surface area, the crisper the bread. The base, of course, would be smooth and relatively yielding and the edges the crunchiest after time in the oven. The smell is a familiar middle-eastern/Mediterranean musk of bread from a wood fired furnace. They had three topping options where you could order a meat, chicken or spinach, either plain or with cheese – the subtly bitter yet equally sumptuous melted cheese, the famed peynir sheep’s cheese, which one desired when eating these true Turkish delights.
We gorged on these, ate more than we tend to eat anywhere else. Plates of kebab and pide all consumed with joyous abandon, followed up by a Turkish rice pudding and mint tea or kahve (coffee). Contrary to expectation, my favourite pide was the spinach and cheese, just perfect marriage of the irony spinach sweetness with the savour of the cheese in warm fresh bread. A cup/bowl of tombe or garlic sauce would send me to heaven for a few moments.
I knew I’d be walking into PIDE carrying tremendous nostalgia, and to an extent I tried making allowance for it. I had to find a way to bench all the reminiscence, put the sense of family and longing aside to try and objectively review this small place in Fitzrovia.
The place was empty when I entered. I did arrive as they opened for lunch, so I didn’t expect there to be people in anyway. It felt more like a café than a Turkish restaurant: large photograph on the wall, tall tables and chairs, a counter to order, a board with menu options hung up, and the ever-popular social media handles by the entrance encouraging a share. In a way Kervan Sofrasi, a restaurant I wrote about briefly in Southgate fits the bill more appropriately with its family style largeness, tables and atmosphere, but I suppose PIDE is perhaps attempting to keep up with the modern times.
As I go to leave my bags to the side, I notice a ledge by the window, wood paneled, covered in a few patterned pillows with a small table at the center with a box of condiments. Did they really expect people to actually sit cross-legged, just by the window for all the world to see, like they were sitting on a carpet in their living room? Or was it just a show piece? A part of me wanted to sit on there and have my meal, but I was wearing the most uncomfortable trousers and thus decided against it.
The Turkish men behind the counter greeted me with first-customer-of-the-day exuberance. By their accents they were Turkish, as well as by their well-trimmed beards and tanned features too. I asked for two pides, a lahmacun to start, with a cup of cacik (garlic, mint and yoghurt sauce) and a kahve (Turkish coffee) for later. The man looked over my shoulder and into the restaurant to see if I had brought any friends – I didn’t. Yes, it was a lot of food, I am starting to get used to this reaction.
There are no plates here. The lahmacun, shaped and sized like a 13inch thin crust pizza though much thinner, comes on a sheet of grease-proof paper. It is very hot and you can smell the muhammara in the tendrils of steam that search for your nostrils. You fold it in half and tear pieces off to eat. Tasty sweet and savory red pepper mixed in with minced lamb go down well.
The two pides do not take long to come after. They come on wooden panels and are pushed onto the table I am at. These were smaller than I was used to, so I knew I’d devour them if they were any good. And they were, I thoroughly enjoyed the lamb, tiny cuts of tender meat in the cheese I love so much, with peppers and serranos for the kick. Full peppercorns nestled within offered a surprising pungency. There is a lot going on your palate, it is not the sort of vibrancy you get from a regular pizza, giving you a flavor of the cultural authenticity of the regional cuisine.
The spinach pide left a lot to be desired. I felt the feta, though with its own merits, was a mistake. There is no reason to have bitter salty feta with the subtle bitterness of spinach. If I ever go back, I will ask if they could change the cheese for me and give me the peynir. Besides the cheese it was not all that bad, nothing to exhort per se, but tolerable in its providing for a decent vegetarian option. The cacik which was creamy and garlicky in the best ways, thus making this taste better than they were.
To consolidate, my delicious Turkish coffee made me feel quite satisfied. This was not a bad iteration by any means, and the Turkish gents manning the restaurant gave the place the required Mediterranean tinge it needed. Watching chefs work in the open kitchen is always captivating. It was the same in Dubai, except on a much larger scale.
Just as I was about to finish my coffee and pack up, a lady in her sixties, posh accent, faux-fur coat, the whole shebang, walks up to the counter, orders two pides and sits at the ledge I spoke about earlier. Not cross-legged mind you, but in a side mount like on a Grecian donkey, waiting for her food. I saw her eating there with a casual elegance through the window from across the street. It did not look wrong at all and I did feel envious of her nonchalance. I do think I have tasted better pides, but if you have not tried one before I would suggest you visit this salon down in Charlotte Street.
Location: 45 Charlotte St, Fitzrovia, London W1T 1RS