Former Lehman Brothers banker turned restaurateur, Sanjay Nandi, takes Rasika Sittamparam on a transcontinental culinary journey - in the heart of Marylebone.
I was dining in the affluent Ristorante Frescobaldi with Sanjay Nandi who partly owns the venue with the namesake Tuscan winemaking dynasty, when he extended an invite to a new Turkish restaurant on Baker Street. Admiring the Renaissance-like flair of the upscale Italian restaurant, I was intrigued by his clear excitement over Yosma, which he describes as an affordable small-plates bar and grill. It surely was no competition to this Mayfair establishment, I thought, admiring its Renaissance-like grandeur with a glass of the delicious Castello di Pomino Bianco.
Frescobaldi, New Burlington Pl
What was more surprising was when I arrived at Yosma for my second dinner date with Nandi; the restaurant was so popular among the Marylebone crowd that he could not secure us a table on a Wednesday evening, despite having booked one for 7pm. Fortunately, the 20-minute delay was a good opportunity to sample the raki (an aniseed-flavoured spirit) bar and the establishment’s curious cocktail infusions.
I was amused when a member of staff told me about the meaning of Yosma, which is Turkish for ‘scarlet woman’. The name was perhaps apt, as the overall ambiance of the restaurant and bar had a seductive quality, further enhanced by Turkish love songs crooning in the background. I had a sip of Yosma (the cocktail namesake), which made me contemplate more on the venue’s feminine allure. With a perfumey scent, the rose vermouth concoction was refreshing and easy on my palette, a pleasant surprise for someone who dislikes Negronis.
The raki bar
The laidback venue was not only affordable (with small plates starting from £3), but also convivial, with friendly staff and a mix of familiar smells wafting in from the grill area visible in the backdrop.
It is the second brainchild of the Good Food Society, an umbrella venture, led by Nandi and his Turkish business partner Levent Büyükuğur, which develops new hospitality concepts across international markets. Inspired by the success of the now well-established Frescobaldi (the family brand’s first restaurant venture outside Italy), Yosma has now been set up to further flex the firm’s culinary muscle by aiming to bring the vibrancy of Istanbul to Baker Street.
When we were finally seated, we tucked into a selection of hot and cold mezes daintily arranged and generously sprinkled with fresh-smelling Mediterranean herbs. The items were simple but tantalising, the triumphant Pancar being an example. The delicate flavours of dill dancing on the garlic-oil drenched pit-roasted golden beetroot was a taste I desperately wanted to linger on, and the small-plate portions made me long for more mouthfuls.
A noteworthy hot meze was the crispy chickpea flour calamari, Kalamar Tava. The dense flavour texture of the batter was a pleasant contrast to the smooth and neutral squid, and the squid ink tahini dip was an interesting accompaniment. Yet another item I was drawn to was the adorable Manti, a group of Hershey’s Kisses-sized dumplings in yoghurt, chilli oil and mint. These were stuffed with lamb neck, painstakingly minced and refined to provide a subtle meaty thrill which, like the Pancar, was addictive.
The mangal (barbecued) items arrived next in larger portions, fresh from the grill. Both Ali Nazik (lamb rumb with aubergine, yoghurt and burnt tomato) and the juicy Kuzu Kaburga (lamb breast with squash, hazelnut, lemon yoghurt and chilli ezme) were succulent morsels that proved effective in drowning the dizzying effects of raki.
A visit to both of the Good Food Society’s London establishments in a fortnight meant I couldn’t help but compare both offerings, an exercise encouraged by Nandi himself. While the premise of Frescobaldi rested on its majestic winemaking heritage, Yosma was the British-Turkish baby Büyükuğur has been waiting to conceive. The decision to launch a mangal bar in London was a natural progression, considering the Turkish entrepreneur’s success with Istanbul Doors, the first corporate restaurant group in Turkey.
Despite the obvious differences between Ristorante Frescobaldi and Yosma (the cuisine, price range and setting), I was appreciative of the lasting effects both had on me. At Frescobaldi I tucked into a refreshing and flavourful crab bruschetta, seabass carpaccio with crunchy celery straws and grilled calamari with perfectly crisped edges – all swimming with clear and definitive flavours. There are also fantastic pastas: the rabbit paccheri and the memorable squid ink strozzapreti.
Compared to these proud but independent dishes, Yosma’s menu preferred to blur the flavour boundaries with yoghurt and herbs to create a warming lull. Adding to this effect, you are sure to have a helpful waiter by your side to keep you suitably boozed up with the ubiquitous raki. It recreates the ‘meyhane’ (the Mediterranean version of hygge) spirit of Istanbul, I was told.
The cosiness was magnified with the intoxicating sweetness of their king of desserts: a pizza-like filo pie with a syrupy glaze which gleamed next to the candlelight. The incredible Künefe truly won my heart over, a rich and crispy crust with a soft, cheesy middle. It was something I wanted to thank God, and the Ottoman Empire, for.
Two dinners and plenty of drinks with Nandi, a former Lehman Brothers banker, made me realise the importance of partnerships in the restaurant landscape, an industry he likens to the private equity world, although, with a smaller scale of returns. It is the relationships he cherishes most, he tells me, as he recalls his first meeting with Büyükuğur as a client. The Turkish restaurateur’s ambitions impressed Nandi so much that he not only invested in his business, but also brought him to the UK to found the Good Food Society. It is talents like these that are incredibly rare in the industry, he says, but searching for them (and other business opportunities) is a challenge he constantly and passionately pursues. With the range of gastronomic goodness this results in, I do hope he continues to do so.
Sanjay Nandi, chef Hus Vedat and Levent Büyükuğur