Counter narrative: how Kemal Demirasal is challenging perceptions of Turkish cuisine

By Joe Lutrario

- Last updated on GMT

Turkish chef Kemal Demirasal on his new fish restaurant The Counter Soho

Related tags Kemal Demirasal The Counter Turkish cuisine Chefs The Counter Soho The Counter Notting Hill

Having put the record straight on Turkish kebabs, the (quietly) high-profile chef has launched a fish restaurant and subterranean listening bar in Soho.

The Turkish tourist board should consider putting Kemal Demirasal on its payroll. Halfway through our interview about his new Soho fish restaurant and listening bar I unwittingly press the pause button by casually mentioning I am considering a trip to Istanbul.

10 minutes later I’m still waiting for our discussion to recommence as he painstakingly enters a list of recommendations into my phone. Every now and then he stops typing to stare into the middle distance as if to consider whether he really is identifying the very best place for şiş (AKA shish), döner or Adana kebab.

Originally from Alaçatı – a pretty town on Turkey’s Çeşme Peninsula that looks out onto the blue waters of the Aegean – the affable and quietly spoken Demirasal says his debut London restaurant would have been focused on fish were it not for his frustration with the UK’s kebab scene, or at least 99.9% of it. Kebabs might be a staple on these shores – there are estimated to be 20,000 kebab shops and restaurants over here – but, according to Demirasal, we’re doing it wrong.


Skewering the UK’s kebab scene

“The kebab is so misunderstood in London and pretty much everywhere else outside Turkey,” he says with an air of genuine sorrow. What’s his beef exactly? Well, literally beef. “Kebabs should be made with lamb and lamb only. Many places over here use a mix of beef and lamb to reduce costs.”

Anything else? Demirasal’s other big issue with the way kebabs are handled is the accoutrements – as they are not called - that are offered by the majority of establishments. Shredded iceberg, tomatoes, onion and – yes – even chilli sauce and mayonnaise are superfluous to the point that they are detrimental to the true kebab experience in his eyes.

"If you opened a UK-style kebab shop in Turkey, it would close in two days"

“A true Turkish kebab should be lamb, salt and bread. That's it. The most adventurous thing we do in Turkey is add a little smoked paprika to the mince,” says Demirasal, who does concede that there are a handful of places that get it right in the capital, including Umut 2000, which has restaurants in Harringay and Dalston.

So why are kebab shops and restaurants run by Turkish people – and others from in and around the Anatolian peninsula including Kurds and Greek Cypriots – making such a mess of it? Though a more recent wave of immigration of which Demirasal is part may soon start to drive change, the UK’s kebab landscape was largely shaped by the political and economic migrants that arrived here a generation or so ago.

“In general, these people were not chefs. They weren’t opening these places because they loved kebabs. They needed something to make money,” he says. “Because of this, they perhaps didn’t use the best meat or prepare and cook it properly. So, they added extra things. If you cover something in mayonnaise and hot sauce, it’s going to taste okay. But it’s not the real thing. If you opened a UK-style kebab shop in Turkey, it would close in two days.”


Bringing real Turkish kebabs to Notting Hill

Launched quietly in 2022 – a curious strategy given that Demirasal is one of Turkey’s most prominent chefs – Notting Hill’s The Counter serves definitive versions of Adana Kebabı​ (minced lamb) and Çiğer kebabı (liver), but it is not a kebab restaurant per se. Instead, it is billed as a mangal ocakbaşı that is inspired by the cuisines of southeastern Anatolia, the Levant and the Mediterranean.

While it does offer some dishes you’d expect to find in what Demirasal would describe as Anglo-Turkish restaurants, the Golborne Road venture is distinctive, serving a menu of authentic but occasionally tweaked Turkish dishes including whipped tamara with salmon roe and sumac; kibbeh with tahini cream, isot, mint and chilli; and a babaganoush enriched with white chocolate.

Another thing that sets The Counter apart from its competitors is its focus on top quality UK meat – largely lamb and goat – and specialist artisan Turkish ingredients that are imported directly including olives, dates, cheeses and spices.

Backed by private equity firm Gees Court Partners - which has also put money into Market Halls and coffee shop/greengrocer hybrid BENS - The Counter has been a commercial success. Yet it has arguably not made the splash it should have given its chef patron’s considerable talent and it being one of just a handful of UK Turkish restaurants that are run in a progressive manner.

Part of the issue Demirasal acknowledges is its market positioning. “We’re happy with it but it’s a neighbourhood restaurant. Its financial performance is reflective of that. Notting Hill has been a good place for us to learn about the UK market and develop our products.”


Looking to the Aegean for inspiration

Launched earlier this week in the space that was once home to Korean restaurant Jinjuu, The Counter Soho brings Demirasal’s cooking to a wider audience and sees the chef challenge the UK’s perception of Turkish cuisine once again by focusing on fish.

"Just because we cook it on a grill it doesn't make it Aegean"

The Kingly Street restaurant comprises a 60-cover ground floor restaurant and a 30-cover basement listening bar called Under The Counter. Available upstairs and downstairs, The Counter Soho’s menu is inspired by the cuisine of Turkey but also the Aegean regions of Greece along with some influences from the Mediterranean and the Levant.

The Counter Soho will take an unconventional approach to sourcing by largely insisting on fish that come from warmer waters. “I can get great turbot in the UK but serving cold water species in an Aegean restaurant does not make any sense,” says Demirasal. “Just because we cook it on a grill it doesn’t make it Aegean.”

Sourced from the waters around Spain and Italy as well as the Aegean itself, key species will include sea bass, pink sea bream, red mullet, stone bass, and tuna. Prices will in general be in line with Notting Hill but some of the Soho restaurant’s fish specials – including large cuts of tuna and pretty carpaccios of pink sea bream – will be charged at a significant premium that reflects the high price of Demirasal’s raw materials.

Key cooking techniques for the fish include grilled, salt-baked and a Bouillabaisse-esque stew called balik pilaki. In many cases the species will dictate the cooking method, for example on Turkey’s Aegean coast red mullet is traditionally dusted with flour and deep-fried before being served with a simple accompaniment of rocket and lemon.

Seafood dishes on the launch menu include sea bass crudo with citrus zest, capers, chilli, cucumber and umami dressing; marinated tuna with tomato pulp, cherry avocado and lumpfish roe; and gambero rosso prawns lightly poached in olive oil served with sumac aioli.

But there are also a fair few meat dishes on offer for a restaurant that is ostensibly focused on seafood, including lamb slow-roasted in a manner that is typical of more inland areas of southern Turkey flavoured with red pepper oil and isot pepper.

Some of the most popular dishes from The Counter Notting Hill also feature, including Demirasal’s peerless Adana kebab; lamb tartare bulgar with bell pepper paste, pomegranate molasses, parsley and mint; and a tzatziki in which the cucumber is pickled and flavoured with tarragon and sumac.


Exploring savoury flavours

The cocktail programme will feature a few of the most popular drinks from Notting Hill including Kazandibi (hazelnut fat-washed bourbon, salted caramel, orange bitter, cinnamon); and Şalgam (mezcal, lime, şalgam AKA black carrot juice and ginger beer). The cocktails that have been developed for Soho are in general made with lighter spirits and are inspired by the Greek side of the Aegean. “They are more savoury. Key flavours include thyme, sea salt and aniseed. We are using top quality ouzo and raki, which are quite new to the UK market. A lot of work goes into our cocktails behind the scenes, but they are always presented in a straightforward way. We don’t do pimp-y.” 

Cocktails exclusive to The Counter Soho include Aegean (raki, lime juice, ginger beer, Angostura bitters); and Kalamata (gin, Lillet Blanc, suze, elderflower liqueur and thyme). Alongside the cocktails are a selection of around 60 wines predominantly from Greece, the wider Mediterranean area, Turkey and the Middle East.

The intention is for meals upstairs to largely revolve around wine, but downstairs will be more geared towards cocktails. “It won’t be a party place, but it will have a different feel to upstairs. The main objective was to create a downstairs area that people wanted to go to rather than wondering why they have been put down there,” says Demirasal, who caught the music and hifi bug from his father.

The Counter Soho will play everything from contemporary Turkish music to jazz and Pink Floyd. Some 300 records have been purchased with the venue planning to add to its collection each week.

“I’m open to anything that has taste. The sound quality is very important to me. Our system has a very powerful amplifier, which is essential if you want music to sound good at low volumes. I have noticed that a lot of places in London that call themselves listening bars don’t have great sound because the space is too large, and the system can’t handle it.’


Swapping Istanbul for London

In common with The Counter Notting Hill, the interior design of Demirasal’s second London restaurant outing doesn’t really reference the menu. “There are a few nods to the Aegean but we like our restaurants to be modern. It’s the food on the plate that tells the story.”

And what a story it is. Largely self-taught, Demirasal came to cooking relatively late on in life having previously been a professional windsurfer (he was named national champion of Turkey no fewer than six times). He has launched a string of restaurants in his home country over the past 15 years or so but is best known for his Istanbul restaurant Alancha, which served an avante garde, research-driven menu that celebrated the origins of Anatolian cuisine.

“Food in Turkey is great but in general the people that make and break restaurants don’t like new things”

There are a number of reasons behind his move to the UK, including Turkey’s expensive and inadequate education system (he has a young son) and the challenges of running a restaurant in Istanbul that largely relied on foreign guests.

“Food in Turkey is great but the people that make and break restaurants don’t like new things. I didn’t feel like I had the freedom to do what I wanted and move forwards,” says Demirasal, who closed Alancha in 2021 in anticipation of his London launch.


A flexible restaurant brand

While The Counter might sound like an oddly generic choice of name for a Turkish restaurant group (and potentially confusing, a high-profile restaurant of the same name recently launched in Tunbridge Wells)​ there is sound logic behind it. A non-Turkish name distinguishes it from pretty much every other Turkish restaurant in London and, beyond and it carries with it no creative restrictions.

“It was impulsive, but I like it,” says Demirasal, who admits that The Counter was initially just a placeholder for his debut London restaurant. “It’s a name that does not give much away. We can have multiple influences. We can do meat in Notting Hill and fish in Soho and maybe something different somewhere else.”

"In 10 years’ time I want to be back in the Mediterranean running a small fish shop and restaurant"

More expansion in the capital is on the cards but the chef has his hands full at present fine tuning The Counter Soho and with the imminent launch of a large, multi-faceted restaurant project near Antalya in southwest Turkey. Working on a consultancy basis for a different group of investors, Demirasal will oversee four restaurants: one French, one Italian, one Japanese and one Aegean.

“I will spend one week a month in Turkey from June. But for the moment London is my home. I’m excited about what we can do here, but we are a slow burn company. We’re not JKS Restaurants; we don’t have a big head office infrastructure behind us.”

But the one thing Demirasal has ruled out is a return to the avante garde cooking with which he made his name. “My food will only get simpler now. In 10 years’ time I want to be back in the Mediterranean running a small fish shop and restaurant. I will run the grill by myself. I’m going to be stubborn. Not many people will like me. There will only be a few tables and I will only cook the food that I want to eat.”

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