Istanbul was Constantinople,
Now it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople…
— They Might be Giants
The waiter – turbaned, with a mask holding in his beard, and very polite – nonetheless is a little disturbed when I ask him a second time about the shish platter at Ottoman Kebab & Grill. I know he’s doing this for my own good – he’s already told me it’s a dish for two. But I’m insistent.
‘Maybe you can order one skewer each to try?’ He suggests.
‘Yes, but is there pide and pilaf with that?’ There isn’t. I stand my ground and order the platter.
It’s not just because I was ravenous, though I was. I chanced upon them while on the way elsewhere, and if not for the dinner crowd I would have changed my plans there and then. That’s how much I like Turkish food. Ottoman is an ocakbaşi restaurant, the term meaning ‘by the grill’; it is also a venture by the folks behind Zaffron Kitchen and Prata Wala, where they’ve installed Ali Kose – a former sous chef to the Big Sweary at Michelin-starred Maze, in Mayfair – to head the operation. This history is mentioned on a billboard at the entrance, and is a good thing to know.
But it’s what’s across the entrance, where Mr. Kose himself stands, that is the better thing to see. Perpetually wreathed in smoke, a hood hanging over it barely catching all the aromas, the grill was in feral form during the height of the dinner service. Kitchen aside, the halal restaurant’s decor is understated, centred around wood and marble tabletops, with Turkish coffee sets as part of the decorations. So far, so traditional.
I start off with the iced apple tea, much recommended, which is intriguing – fruity, a little sweet at the start, with a tongue-clinging astringency in its trail. Perhaps it’s the iciness that emphasised the after-texture.
As with the decor, so it is with the menu, which is a long list of dishes reflective of the restaurant’s name. Founded by the descendants of nomads, raiders and herdsmen, the Ottoman Empire has left a legacy of movement and mixture in cuisine over the vast area which it ruled, and the menu shows it – moussaka shows up, as well as borek (made with phyllo pastry, but fried) and falafel. Is it Turkish, Greek, or does it belong to the Arabs? Yes.
But what I’m after is the shish platter – hunks of mutton, chicken and fish sitting atop discs of pide, marked with the grill bars and absorbing the meat juices to go with their wheaty aroma. The timing of the shish is precise – prawns springy, chicken well charred. The cubes of mutton are broodingly, pungently attractive, giving plenty of resistance to the knife, which is as it ought to be. After all, if one wants pungent and tender, one would go for lamb instead – muscles that haven’t been moving much for long.
The seasoning, though, is a little hit and miss. Once again, the mutton is the star; the heat is minimal, but its natural, tangy fats are balanced with a strong spice rub that also adds to its char. Chicken is also lightly flavoured; the closest comparison is to chicken satay (turmeric, perhaps? Cumin?) but without any of the sweetness. It’s not unpleasant, but it feels a little timid. But it is the fish that’s the weak link. I find out from the server that they use local toman (snakehead), probably for its firmness, and fresh off the grill it is flaky and aromatic. It doesn’t take long, though, before the herbs wear off and the fish starts leaning towards fishiness.
The unevenness of the grill is one thing – and even where it stumbles, Ottoman does rather better than average. But besides that, something about the experience seemed a little off – it’s a sense of having made significant compromises and concessions. This shows through in the details. For instance, the shish platter comes with an anaemic tomato sauce (not ketchup, at least) and a gravy that would be more at home next to some British roast beef. Pilaf rice, meanwhile, has little trace of the broth it’s been cooked in.
Ottoman Kebab and Grill knows what it’s doing, as you would expect from a chef with Kose’s experience; they offer dishes such as kunefe, basically a sweet cheese pie with crisp, wiry noodles as the crust. It just feels as if, despite the ferocity of the grill, they are a little too market-aware. It’s savvy to highlight a chef of that calibre when playing to the local market. But when you start backing down on the intensity of the flavours, that’s a bit of a pity.
So maybe that’s why, despite a good meal, I leave Ottoman Kebab & Grill feeling a little down. Maybe it’s that the expectations were raised at the outset, but I was expecting a more full-throated defence of the many virtues of Turkish cooking, like in many a run-down joint in Germany (with a long-established Turkish community) which I have had the pleasure of visiting. Instead, by being a little too polite and a little too restrained, I fear Ottoman Kebab and Grill has somewhat undersold itself.
Ottoman Kebab & Grill
311 New Upper Changi Road, Bedok Mall # 01-75
Hours: Daily, 10am – 10pm