We’ve been thoroughly enjoying the summery days which have finally arrived, allowing us to enjoy eating outside and generally stay out a bit later, which always brings a good excuse to go out for dinner a bit more. On my way home from work, I’d noticed a sign outside Nef Istanbul which said (among other things) ‘We’re here for the vegans’. Kudos to their blackboard marketing skills because this was enough for the restaurant to pop into my head first when Jamie and I decided to take a walk to Cowley Road in the sun and meet somewhere for dinner. We were hoping to sit outside but the slow, noisy traffic right beside their small outdoor seating area was enough to drive us indoors.
I didn’t have much in the way of expectations for this place, I know the unit has been taken over by different restaurants numerous times during my time living in Oxford, so I was really surprised when we entered what was actually a really lovely looking setting. We chose a table by the window so it was still nice and light, and the tables were laid out very smartly. It felt like a great date night location!
Our waitress was helpful in advising which choices were vegan, and in the end (thanks to her patience as it took us ages to decide) we went for a few mezze to share as starters, and a main each. First from the cold mezze section of the menu, we went for the Baba Ghanoush – despite having a general dislike for aubergine, Jamie likes it, and I’m a big fan. This dish was a little chunkier than the ones I’ve eaten before. It had that familiar slightly bitter, smoky flavour, with plenty of garlic, and a touch of chilli heat. Served with soft, fresh flatbread it was a nice start to the meal.
The other cold starter we’d ordered to try was pilaki, something I’ve not tried before, a broad bean dish cooked in tomato sauce. It came with diced potatoes and carrots, and although it had sounded promising, unfortunately on tasting it reminded me very much of a tin of cold vegetable soup. I’m not sure whether this is reflective of the dish wherever it’s served, but there wasn’t that much flavour in the sauce and it’s probably not one I’d order again.
Of course we also had the obligatory falafel, which were delicious. The three deep-fried chickpea balls were well seasoned, crispy on the outside and crumbly in the middle. They were served on a bed of smooth, well-salted houmous, and with a fresh peppery mixed leaf salad. This was definitely my favourite of the starters, and I was a bit sad when it was whisked away from us before we’d had a chance to mop up the last of the houmous. They certainly took our plates away when they were ready, rather than when we were ready, as we were literally still chewing and had stuff on our small plates when the waiter came and removed them.
With that in mind, our main courses came out more or less instantly, piping hot. I’d ordered what looked like the only vegan main course on the menu, the Imam Bayildi. Aubergine is one of my favourite things when cooked well, and this was delicious. The soft, melting fruit was stuffed with a rich tomato, onion and pepper mixture, which was well cooked so it still retained some texture. It was served alongside an ample portion of free-flowing rice, and a side salad which was far more than just decoration for once. Zingy red cabbage and sweet grated carrot with some crisp leaves and a slightly sweetened dressing; I polished off the entire plate.
There weren’t any vegan puddings as you might expect, but being more of a savoury person and having had more than my fill from the mezze, I was happy for an excuse to stop eating (though I wished I had room for more). You could easily come here and make yourself a whole filling meal from mezze dishes, or go for a main course and some smaller dishes to share. Either way, overall I don’t think you’d be disappointed by the quality of the food, if you make the right choices. The prices were very reasonable and in general the service was good, so if you like this type of food I would recommend checking it out.
Have you visited already? Let me know what you thought of Nef Istanbul in the comments!