Alan Yau tries his hand at Turkish food with mixed results
Londoners have been praying for the demise of the hated Aberdeen Angus Steakhouse chain for decades now. While that tourist-duping parasite is still with us, its weird clone of a competitor the Scotch Steak House chain has thankfully bitten the dust. Taking its place on Shaftesbury Avenue is Babaji Pide, a Turkish restaurant with a menu focussed on pides – or Turkish pizzas if you’re into culinary reductionism. It’s the latest venture from Alan Yau, a Hong Kong-born entrepreneur best known for the Busaba and Wagamama chains.
Alan Yau’s restaurants are nothing if not gorgeous-looking and Babaji is no exception. The lovely blue and white tiles are much more understated than the ornate interior of the now-departed Naamyaa Cafe and are also evocative of classic Iznik tiles without being mere copies. The ground floor is dominated by a single large stone oven where all the pides and breads are freshly baked to order, but this lone oven also proves to be a production bottleneck when the restaurant is busy.
The staff, who appear to be mostly native Turkish speakers, were generally friendly and efficient across all four of my visits. Although still a bit wobbly, they can rectify their mistakes with consummate grace. For example, an American tourist at the next table was insistent on ordering the Topkapi chicken, but only if it had white meat instead of dark meat (a distinction I find ultimately pointless and unnecessary). When the dish turned out to have the wrong-coloured meat, it was quickly and apologetically exchanged for another dish at no extra cost.
First things first
A pide topped with minced lamb is a key staple, but Babaji’s version was merely okay. The base wasn’t quite as crisp and thin as I usually prefer it, but it was still more than good enough. The more significant problems were the limp, under-seasoned lumps of lamb and the tomato pieces which were lacking umami.
Manti are tiny little dumplings. Babji’s versions were steamed, resulting in soft, supple skins. Inside was a meaty, earthy hit of minced lamb that went down well with the thin, mildly creamy yoghurt and moderately punchy chilli sauce spooned on top of the dumplings.
The warm, fluffy and light flatbread was a good accompaniment to the coban salad. The mixture of tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions and parsley was a tad muted, but still refreshing and lightly crisp.
For dessert, I had the figs which were meaty and treacly and had elastic mochi-like skins covered in a crisp, grainy coating of ground almonds. It’s a thoroughly yummy dessert, if a relatively heavy one with the glop of cream the only refreshing element. I washed it all down with the fizzy cherry soda which tasted much like Turkish sour cherry juice but with added carbonation.
Going back for seconds
Babaji also has some more unusual, inventive pides and these tend to be better than the more traditional ones. The pide topped with Swiss chard is a good example. The mild bitterness of the chard contrasted nicely with the gentle sweetness of the sultanas and the creamy earthiness of the soft feta pieces. The base was a little too thick and chewy for my liking this time around, but I’ll put it down to natural variation in a handmade product.
The lamb and beef kofte kebabs were different both in shape and taste to the Adana kofte kebabs I’m familiar with. They’re shaped more like German frikadeller patties than the long, elongated sausage-style Adana koftes. Plus, the presence of beef in addition to lamb makes these koftes far denser and heartier than the lamb-only versions I usually have.
Rice pudding appears to be a universal dish. The version here was served chilled and wasn’t too lumpy or heavy. The dusting of cinnamon on top contrasted nicely with the sourness of the cherries buried underneath all the pudding, but there wasn’t quite enough of the cherries.
A tomato and walnut salad sounds like an excuse to throw two random ingredients together, but the two worked together surprisingly well. The cubed tomato pieces were both juicy and filled with umami-ness, while the occasional bits of crunchy walnut provided a pleasing contrast in texture.
Pastrami is a much under-appreciated deli meat, especially the original beef-based versions. Sadly, the pastrami-topped pide isn’t the best showcase for it as the meat struggles to stand out against the combined creaminess of the egg and cheese and the soft fluffiness of the base. Adding some of the rocket, which is served on the side, helped boost the salty beefiness of the Bresaola-esque pastrami somewhat. Overall this was an unbalanced, but still reasonably satisfying pide.
The Topkapi chicken, named after the Ottoman palace, is basically Babaji’s version of tavuk dolma – chicken stuffed with rice. Here, chunks of thigh meat have been shaped into a small dome, stuffed with spiced rice and then roasted. The meat was moist with a taut layer of skin, while the rice was fluffy and nutty. A lightly spicy sauce is served on the side, but it’s not really necessary as this surprisingly minimalist dish was easily moreish enough on its own.
Given Turkey’s rich tradition of pastry making, exemplified by baklava and kunefe, it’s a shame that it’s almost totally unrepresented on Babaji’s menu. The closest thing we get, and this is a real stretch, is the vanilla ice cream wafer sandwich. The layers of dry wafers and dusting of pistachio makes it resembled a giant baklava, but the chewy, plasticky wafers, unremarkable vanilla ice cream and inconsequential crushed pistachios are all as far removed from a baklava, or indeed any good dessert, as it’s possible to get.
Nigde gazozu sounds like an inappropriate joke ready to erupt from Nigel Farage’s mouth, but it’s actually a mildly sweet fizzy drink. It’s supposed to taste like raspberry, but its mild sweetness was more like bubble gum – and that’s a good thing. If you like Indian lassis then you’ll like the ayran, a thick and lightly salted yoghurt-based drink that’s as soothing as it is milky.
Go fourth and multiply
Babaji’s interesting selection of non-alcoholic drinks continues with the cherry iced tea. It’s a surprisingly thick liquid that combines the flavour of sour cherry and the slightly bitter tannic taste of tea into a refreshing and tasty beverage. Like all the soft drinks, I wish it came in a larger serving. Like a bucket.
Although the karides pide is topped with shrimp, the little crustaceans might as well not be there as they’re totally overwhelmed by the strongly creamy cheese and umami tomatoes. It’s an unbalanced and unsatisfying dish.
Far better was the lamb stew with aubergine puree. The tender, unctuous chunks of lamb were made even better by the smoky creaminess of the aubergine.
The seven grain salad was a crisp, refreshing and lip smacking medley of chick peas, mung beans, black eyed peas, rice, pine nuts, red onions, dill and parsley. It was made even better by a dressing of light and fruity olive oil.
I’m generally bored with poached pears as a dessert, but Babaji’s version was a step above the usual, humdrum standard. The yielding flesh was gently sweet and subtly tart, making it a real joy. The soft and grainy ricotta, while a pleasure in of itself, didn’t really go with the poached pear but you can’t have it all.
Pides are usually a starter or a light lunch at many other Turkish restaurants in London. It’s therefore unusual to have them as the main attraction as they are at Babaji, but this doesn’t really bother me as I’m hardly a stickler for traditional culinary formalities (I like eating Dim Sum at night, for pete’s sake). The more pressing issue is price. An average meal at Babaji Pide will cost around twice as much as a comparable meal in a Turkish restaurant on Green Lanes or in Dalston which is unsurprising given the overheads of a Shaftesbury Avenue location. To justify these prices, Babaji needs to not only be better than its more established, albeit farther removed competition but have better service and more atmosphere too.
Unfortunately, Babaji only hits one of these milestones. Putting the merely satisfactory pides aside, there are some good dishes here that you’ll struggle to find elsewhere, but they’re not so good that I’d sell my firstborn to have again. The decor is undoubtedly stylish, but for now the atmosphere is somewhat sterile. The generally good service, along with its convenient location, is what sets Babaji apart from other Turkish restaurants. If this helps induct novices into the delights of Turkish cuisine then that’s great. For everyone else though, Babaji is merely a fall back option rather than somewhere you would ache to eat at again.
What to order: Topkapi chicken; Lamb stew with aubergine puree; the salads
What to skip: Vanilla ice cream wafer sandwich
Name: Babaji Pide
Address: 53 Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1D 6LB
Phone: 020 3327 3888
Web: http://www.babaji.com.tr/ (little more than a holding page at the time of writing)
Opening Hours: seven days a week noon-23.30.
Reservations: yeah, if you want
Average cost for one person including soft drinks: £30-35 approx.