80 Lygon St
Brunswick East VIC 3057
+61 3 9380 8534
My teacher friend, Jen-from-Wallan, was in town for the school holidays so Shirley and I arranged a lunch date prior to her driving back up to whoop-whoop. Because Jen isn’t a fan of driving in the CBD, we made sure to find a place that was not in ‘3000’ yet still accessible for me who lives in the Eeeeee and Shirley who lives in the W-W-W-www (remember Ali G?). When trying to come up with lunch spots, I recalled my work colleague, Robert suggesting I try Baba. Given that he is a foodie philistine who best described the restaurant as “ethnic and delicious”, I was initially reluctant to take his advice but we threw caution to the wind and decided to lunch there.
Situated in the what-used-to-be-the-culinary-wasteland end of Lygon Street, Baba Levantine Trading Company, as the name suggests, acknowledges the importance of the once-flourishing trading activities that occured between Europe and the Ottoman Empire and subsequently draws influence from a variety of cuisines in the region. It is a casual eating house during the day while a tune-spinning DJ creates more of an up-market, funky atmosphere at night.
Despite the restaurant’s website saying that it opens at 12pm on Saturdays, the owner had barely began unstacking chairs and tables when we walked in. Saturday morning hangover, got it. Once we did the whole squealing OMG-I-HAVEN’T-SEEN-YOU-IN-AGES, JEN thing, we got right down to business.
Baba’s dishes are, like most Melbourne restaurants’ dishes these days, designed to share. Whether you’re in the mood for some dips, some little mezze plates (both vegetarian and non-vegetarian), some pide or something larger such as a claypot dish, there is something for everyone. And for those who just can’t decide, Baba makes it easier for you by offering ‘Food Safari’ banquets ranging from $25 to $39.50 per head. I’m normally one to try everything at restaurants and thus, would go for a banquet without a second thought. None of us, however, were super hungry so we decided to order from the a la carte menu. After ordering some drinks (a tourag mint tea for me, $3 for a subtle but refreshing pick-me-up), we waited for our food.
It was just as well that the three of us had a LOT to catch up on because the food took a pretty long time to come. A pretty, pretty, pretty long time. While I may forgive the restaurant for not being open and ready when we arrived, taking way too long despite a full kitchen and despite only two other tables being occupied is not at all good. I get that Saturday afternoons are generally more cruisier than weekdays but c’mon, Shirley had a wedding to go to later than evening and I had … well, something to do… so there should be no excuse! I will, however, let it slip this time only because the food was darn good.
Take the batata harra ($8.50), for example. Deep-fried potato pieces were spiced with a fragrant blend of coriander seeds and leaves, garlic and chilli and then drizzled in yoghurt. This dish would probably be a side-dish but heck, I could eat it on its own for lunch as it was so filling and so tasty.
Then came the pan-fried Crystal Bay prawns with garlic, parsley and isot pepper ($16.50). They were served sizzling fresh from the pan and were flavoured with gay abandon. Although the prawns were a little on the dry side, the tingling sauce did make up for it, the isot pepper giving the sauce a mild smoky flavour.
We decided to share a pide, which were supposed to be designed for one. Although they were priced between $10-14, they were disappointingly on the skinny side and not even half as big as the first pide I’ve ever tried (at Circular Quay, out of ALL places). Still, the spicy sucuk, kasarli cheese and smoked tomato with coriander and fresh chilli pide ($13.50) was lovely. I really like the balance of flavours, all neatly arranged on a flat, long pide bread. I did, however, feel that the kasarli (which tasted like a saltier mozzarella) combined with the already salty sucuk made the pide more salty than necessary.
Finally, we shared a claypot dish which was supposed to be large: chargrilled spiced lamb fillets with shaved fennel and cucumber and roast lemon dressing ($21.50). I liked the succulent lamb fillets which were tender to the bite as well as cooling fennel and cucumber salad which was dressed in a lighter, cooler version of an aioli. I didn’t think the braised chickpeas in tomato offered much in terms of taste, but I acknowledge that they were necessary as a filler.
To conclude our journey down the Levant, we decided to order desserts. Shirley, a chocolate mousse fanatic, was bummed that they did not have the Turkish coffee chocolate mousse and pistachio tuille ($11) available, but we made do with sharing two desserts. One being a lively rosewater panna cotta (wiggle wiggle, haha!) with a sultry and slighty tangy rhubarb and pomegranate jelly sauce ($12).
… and the other was an apple sorbet with a fresh apple and mandarin salad ($9.50), hands-down the better dessert out of the two. Although this dish is more of a ‘Summer’ dessert, it was the perfect way to end our lunch despite it being cold outside. It was refreshingly simple yet full of beautiful flavours from this season’s juicy mandarins. Loved it.
Although it doesn’t look like much food between three girls with iron tummies, we were all actually full in the end (though to be fair, it was probably the carb-heavy potatoes that did it). Despite the running-on-Turkish time service and despite the chocolate mousse not being available, everything else was wonderful. At the very least, Baba made us realise that Turkish food does not always equal greasy kebabs and heavy pides; it could be light, fresh and more importantly, fun. Kinda like what Holly Valance did to Tarkan’s Şımarık (c’mon now, you didn’t think that ‘Kiss Kiss’ was a Holly Valance original, didn’t you?). We’d definitely be back but this time I expect them to have taken lessons in speed from Mesut Ozil.