Turkish food often gets a bad press here. Think of the fat and salt and calorie load of doner kebab, indeterminate meat sliced from a rotisserie and shoved into a pitta, that favourite of the boozed-up queue for the last bus.
But, courtesy of budget airlines, nearly all of us now know there is a far richer side to Turkish cuisine, ingredients that sing with the flavours of the sun: lemon, garlic, aubergine, sesame, tahini, cumin, rosewater, pistachios, walnuts, pomegranates, figs and fat juicy cherries.
Turkey, Greece and the near Middle East have given us one of the best cuisines in the world – think of baba ganoush, pide, hummus, falafel, kofte, shawarma, baklava and lots more. So it is with a collective smacking of lips that four of us head out on Otley Road to Lavanta Meze Bar and Grill, Turkish-born Orhan Girgin’s new restaurant at West Park, the fourth on this site following the largely forgettable West Park Brasserie, Lime Tree and Pip’s.
Lavanta (Turkish for lavender) may not mean anything but if you have eaten out in Leeds over the last 30 years, you will surely have good memories of eating at an Olive Tree, the two family-run restaurants in Headingley and Chapel Allerton (the original Rodley branch has now closed) that have been sending out Greek and Turkish standards since 1983.
Girgin, their long-serving chef, has now gone solo with some ambition. From the fairy lights outside to a mildly glitzy interior of sparkling walls, mirrors, feature lampshades and show-off champagne bottles, the message is trading up. We may be just up the road from student Headingley but this is well-dressed West Park.
The printed menu – no blackboard dishes of the day – declares “classic contemporary Mediterranean and European cuisine”, and it certainly covers all bases: tzatziki, hummus, baba ganoush, pizza, pasta, steak, grilled lamb, grilled fish, burgers. Burgers? I’m not sure where in Byzantium the Angus beefburger appeared served with Monterey Jack cheese and optional hickory-smoked bacon; ditto Whitby crab and prawn cocktail.
So we choose from the meze menu: baba ganoush; kalamari; chargrilled halloumi with fennel pesto; beetroot and feta, all averaging a fiver and a pricier shakshuka with merguez sausage at £6.50. For mains we go for grilled lamb – brochette and chops – with wine from a prosaic list.
Dishes arrive with that “fine dining” affectation in which one waiter carries the tray of food while another lifts off the plate and presents it to the table. It was one of those evenings of well-meaning service where waiters repeatedly ask if everything’s all right (once before we’d even started eating) but lose all eye contact when you need them.
To begin with the best: the shakshuka is terrific, a gently spiced and comforting stew of tomatoes, onions, peppers, chilli and cumin. The merguez sausages are excellent and the softly poached egg melds nicely with tomatoey sauce.
The lamb brochette is tender served with vermicelli rice though with barely a lick of the promised Aleppo pepper salsa and while the chops have been gently marinated in oregano, lime juice and rosemary we have significant issues with the “roast garlic potatoes”, namely that there is no hint of garlic nor of anything roasted, just plain boiled new potatoes.
Things also fall away with the meze. The baba ganoush is insipid and lacking the characteristic smack of smoky aubergine. Accepting that these are meze, the kalamari still feels mean: three battered rings and a token salad. The halloumi is not obviously chargrilled and the promised fennel pesto is beyond detection by eye or mouth. The beetroot and feta is short on vinaigrette.
Not only do these dishes lack some of the elements on the menu, worse they lack boldness and conviction, all the more frustrating from a Turkish chef who must have eaten this kind of food around the family table countless times.
At dessert we comb the menu for anything Middle Eastern. There’s crème brûlée, chocolate fondant, ice cream, coconut and rosewater pannacotta, cheese, baklava and kadalfi. We choose kadalfi and the pannacotta on account of the rosewater.
The kadalfi is nice enough, a layer of crushed pistachios topped with shredded pastry and served with mascarpone cream but the pannacotta was laughable. It had so obviously failed to set it should never have been sent out but it was – still sloshing around in its aluminium dariole mould – as if we might not notice. It went uneaten (undrunk) but no-one seemed to notice this either until we had it struck off the bill.
Any new restaurant will have its teething troubles but we’d have forgiven Lavanta a whole lot more if it had been a more authentic meze bar and grill, if it had had the courage of its Turkish origins and given us a more full-blooded Levantine cuisine.
Then again what do I know? No doubt Orhan Girgin knows his clientele, and burgers and pizzas and East Mediterranean “lite” will do the business at West Park and Lavanta will outlast its predecessors.
• Lavanta Meze Bar & Grill, 269 Otley Road, West Park, Leeds LS16 5LN; telephone 0113 274 5525, www.lavantarestaurant.co.uk; open Monday to Thursday, 12pm-2.30pm & 5.30pm-10pm; Friday & Saturday, 12pm-10.30pm and Sun 12pm-10pm.