Words & Portraits Etienne Gilfillan
“We are very close to everything that leaves our kitchen, and the atmosphere that we create…”
Walking down Newman Street one morning, I noticed the colourfully painted interiors and neon lights of a brand new restaurant. The playful interior, with brightly coloured skeletons and sword-wielding warriors adorning the walls, immediately drew me in. But sitting down to breakfast, I quickly realised that despite the eatery’s modern look, the lovingly prepared dishes and warm welcome spoke of a far older and more traditional perspective.
A wondrous feast of varied meze was laid out before me, and as I tucked in, Inci Ismail, the owner of Firedog, explained how she’d always wanted to bring a modern twist to Turkish dining while staying rooted in family traditions. One of the clues to this ode to the Aegean past lies in the restaurant’s obscure, but seemingly modern, name.
“A firedog is a piece of stoneware that was used for grilling meat as far back as the 17th Century BC on the Aegean island of Santorini,” Inci explains. “But the main inspiration behind Firedog is our traditional style of dining – there’s no such thing as a ‘meal’, it’s always an eating experience with friends and family.”
Inci was born in Tottenham, North London, where she lived with her mother, father and three siblings, and her passion for bringing this noble culinary heritage to Fitzrovia can be traced back to her parents’ influence. They grew up in Sivas, a beautiful city in central Turkey known, among other things, for its distinctive regional dishes.
Inci’s earliest memories of food relate to how inextricably entwined eating and socialising are in Turkish culture. When she was growing up, her family hosted weekend breakfasts that usually blurred into lunch or dinner – “a never-ending breakfast feast”, as she describes it. Her household had an “open-door policy” whereby friends and family were always welcome – in fact, the more the merrier. This very Turkish sense of sociability and generosity had a profound impact on the budding restaurateur, one that became an integral part of her adult outlook and the primary inspiration for Firedog’s culinary ethos.
Though Inci later married a Turkish Cypriot whose mother’s cooking skills rivalled those of her own, she still sides with her own kin. “My mother’s expertise in Turkish dishes is greater than anyone else I know – but I suppose I am biased!” she says. Family loyalty aside, Inci was duly impressed with her mother-in-law’s considerable talents in the kitchen. “In fact, we flew Firedog’s head chef to Cyprus to meet her. We wanted him to learn to master the flavours, the cuisine, as well as the social significance that food symbolises.”
Such measures are unsurprising when you realise just how completely immersed Inci is in the business of creating food. “We are very close to everything that leaves our kitchen, and the atmosphere that we create,” she explains. This is a welcome return to a style of dining that sometimes seems to have vanished in the modern world, and a salutary lesson for a generation that has forgotten the sacred ritual of gathering round the table and prefers the company of a screen at lunch and dinner.
True to Inci’s family traditions, Firedog’s great innovation is dishing out this expansive Mediterranean eating experience for breakfast and brunch – all day breakfast is served until 4pm. “It sets us apart, and is a completely different way of dining to the regular London brunch scene”, she says. The main attraction here is the Firedog Breakfast Meze: their signature spread of traditional meze dishes and specials inspired by the Su’dan restaurant in Alacati, Turkey. We’re not talking a bowl of porridge or cereal, here, and the blandness of a workaday breakfast is made clear when Ismail explains the logic behind her approach: “Grazing on smaller plates full of flavour, mixing sweet and savoury, ensures every taste craving is fulfilled!”
Roast beetroot hummus, smoked and pickled aubergine, goat’s yoghurt, and pastirma are served alongside the authentic Near Eastern flavours of sumac, barberry, and sujuk, the spicy sausage popular in turkey and beyond. More than just the food, it’s that distinctive Mediterranean attitude to eating together that makes the concept so appealing. As Inci says, “Being able to share and pass dishes around the table adds to the social experience – and there’s no fear of having food envy!”
Drinks are also given the Firedog spin, with a range of exotic freshly squeezed juices Fresh mandarin, grapefruit and purple carrot juice add extra zing to daytime dining and bring a bit of the Aegean sun to London. Should you fancy something stronger, they’ve also teamed up with South London’s Partizan Brewery to produce a bespoke sumac and za’atar house beer.
Firedog combines dining and bar spaces. Inci was delighted with the mood and atmosphere of the space when they first came to it, but was keen to give it a fresh perspective too. Though eager to share her culture’s convivial dining habits, she wanted to do so with a humorous and contemporary edge by blending other cultural mores and styles, adamant that “Firedog would have elements of London”. With this in mind, she enlisted an East London artist from Graffiti Life to daub the walls with images of the meaty, moustachioed warrior Tarkan, a character from a series of Turkish comics and films of the 60s and 70s. “Tarkan sort of sums up our identity,” she says. “ A proud Turkish warrior!”
Inci’s success hasn’t been down to luck: she’s a canny entrepreneur with her fingers in a lot of meze. Her hard-working parents instilled in her a rigorous work ethic, which has paid off in several other business ventures. Simply Organique, a coffee house and grocery business based in Manor House was her first, started in February of 2015. Since then, she says, she has been fortunate to support other business ventures, such as The Black Penny coffee house in Covent Garden, Firedog, and an upcoming seafood concept called Trawler Trash opening shortly in Islington.
Despite these geographically dispersed businesses, Fitzrovia is where Inci has made her home. She’s particularly fond of Store Street, where her morning caffeine fix comes courtesy of Store Street Espresso. “I take my hat off to them,” she says. “A flat white is my go-to in the mornings.” And she has a soft spot, too, for the buildings on South Crescent, explaining “I love the architecture… it looks beautiful at Christmas. One thing that would make the street complete, though, would be the revival of the old Petrol station.”
Meanwhile, back at Firedog, the vibe is fun, convivial and buzzing – just as it should be when good food is combined with good company. “We hope that everyone who visits us leaves suitably full of food, laughs and music,” says Inci. As restaurant mission statements go, I can’t really think of a better one than that.