Taste It: Babaji
Forgive me taking over the narrative. All opinions herein expressed are the views of the Taste It collective but having been raised in Turkey, I take personal offence in anything that misrepresents the country. Turkey has an incredible cuisine, it is rich, it is versatile and – surprise (!) – it is healthy!
People often forget that Turkey is a Mediterranean country with some seriously tasty vegetable and fish dishes that half the world probably never even heard about. It is definitely not all meats and kebaps, as people understandably assume due to the sheer number of kebap shops that you run into at every corner. Don’t get me wrong; I have nothing against kebap shops, especially when I am starving at 2 am in East London. They are there for a reason, the instant gratification of poor stomachs awashed with alcohol and poor souls that are too drunk to realize the indigestion they will have the following morning. And I understand the owners, most of whom moved to London years ago with the promise of a ‘better’ life and did what they knew best with as small a budget as possible. But, if you are one of the biggest restaurant entrepreneurs in the UK and if you are married to a Turkish lady who can guide you through her heritage lest you are clueless, then you better do a grand job at serving some seriously tasty Turkish food in the middle of Soho!
As you can figure out from the very long rant, that is not the case with Babaji – the Turkish restaurant owned by star restaurateur Alan Yau. You may have heard the name, since he also owns the Michelin-starred Yauatcha and Hakkasans –the former being one of my favourite places to eat in England. Still doesn’t ring a bell? Well he owns the Busabas and Wagamamas too. There you go!
Babaji opened up sometime last year in Shaftesbury Avenue, a very busy corner on a main street, which is usually not a very good sign in itself. I had heard mixed reviews from my friends then, some of whom were not very impressed while others rejoiced in the fact that a famous entrepreneur was offering them decent Turkish food in the heart of London. What caught my attention then was the fact that they had Turkish breakfast on the menu, which you should put in your ‘things to eat before I die’ list. Before I had a chance to head to the crime scene however, they had a fire in their kitchen and had to shut down. After they reopened, I took Mark along with me to pass the verdict, which I regret to say, is not very good.
The online reviews generally highlight the poor service, but in my opinion, it was the best thing about the restaurant. We ordered a few starters, one of which was prawns cooked Turkish style. They basically cook prawns in a clay pot with peppers and butter in it and grate ‘kaşar’, a somewhat cheddar cheese on top. What we had on the table was the worst representation of that dish I had ever seen in my life, lacking any flavour or colour, plus, the prawns! The tiny pot was basically full of prawn legs without actual prawns in them, which we were horrified at and sent back straight away. To their credit, the staff seemed to be very embarrassed about it; the manager came to our table immediately and offered us another dish on the house.
We each asked for a ‘Külbastı’ as our main, which is grilled lamb with tomato sauce, yogurt and flat bread. The plate that arrived at the table was very small, thankfully, we both get full easily but I can’t see how it would feed someone with a big appetite. The food itself wasn’t bad but it wasn’t great either, certainly not worth the 11.50 Pounds that they charge you for. I was looking forward to seeing their wine menu since believe it or not, Turkey is home to some incredible boutique wines that win prestigious international awards. However, what they had was a very generic selection, certainly an unambitious choice considering how they seem to be to trying to turn the whole Turkish food experience into some sort of quasi-fine dining. It could have worked since the atmosphere and the décor of the place are quite nice, clean and authentic, courtesy of the world-renowned Turkish design team Autoban, with some well-known Turkish pop songs blasting the speakers. But it doesn’t.
Babaji calls itself a ‘pide salonu’, which is ‘Turkish pizza’ to foreigners. We had our eyes on the other tables and most people seemed to opt for the pide dishes. To be fair, the pides seemed to look much better than what we had so maybe, you could avoid the disappointment if you stuck with them.
Overall, we didn’t have a pleasant experience in this place at all. What a shame that it is such a massive missed opportunity! Feel free to take your chances and go give it a try if you’d like. But please do not buy into the myth that this is authentic Turkish food because Turkish cuisine has a lot more to offer and the food is so much better than that! I promise!