Joanna Blythman reviews Baba
AFICTIONAL Mr Baba lolls on an Ottoman carpet on the back of the menu at Baba, the new restaurant on Edinburgh’s premier artery, George Street. He embodies those cultural representations of “the East”, the “othering” dubbed as “Orientalism” by that great Palestinian academic, Edward Said. He didn’t mince his words. “Since the time of Homer every European, in what he could say about the Orient, was a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric,” he wrote. If Said were with us today, I wonder what he would make of our ongoing love affair with Levantine cuisine. A modern expression of Orientalism, or evidence of a more enlightened appreciation of the intricacies of Middle Eastern cultures?
In contemporary terms, Baba seems somewhat out of place in a quasi-autonomous part of the Principal Hotel (formerly the staid, dowager duchess that was the Roxburghe). It’s certainly a huge improvement of what preceded it, and it’s wonderful to see an independent business set up on this high-rent street, which, with the glowing exception of Caffè Contini, is overrun by chains. It’s encouraging too that Baba has a connection with the highly successful Ox And Finch team.
My initial thought on Baba is that someone needs to get a grip of the front of house. It feels as if the waiting staff flit by, intently focused on everyone else’s needs. We want to order, but the woman who greeted us has disappeared. And when the food arrives (too promptly), we have to grab cutlery from the next table, our candle has gone out, and the Anatolian wine brought to us is white, even though we ordered rosé.
It’s a short menu, so almost inevitably you’re going to go for the selection of eight dips that costs £17 for two people. Given that many of the ingredients – pulses, vegetables – are relatively inexpensive, and the flatbread is bought in, not made in-house, this seems quite a hefty price tag, even for George Street. And when the dishes all arrive, I check that this is indeed a serving for two, not one. Several amount to the equivalent of a heaped tablespoon.
Fortunately, we’ve also ordered haggis and harissa kibbeh. Four tiny ones appear, more like Panko-crumbed haggis balls ramped up with chilli, but they’re eminently edible, especially with their minty dressing and dusting of nutty, salty, sesame seed dukkah.
What little there is of the hummus is much better than average, largely because it’s not stingy with the tahini, it’s drizzled with zhug (the Yemeni pounded green sauce with coriander, parsley, and chilli), and strewn with toasted pine kernels. It beats the squash dip: it’s gummy, and gung-ho with the chilli. Same goes for the muhummara: too hot. The best of the dips is the goat cheese, pistachio, lemon, and courgette one. It reminds me of a recipe from Sabrina Ghayour’s useful book, Persiana. Potentially insipid beetroot hummus is saved by its hazelnut dukkah. Labneh seems homemade and with enough fresh dill to please an Iranian. The only shortcoming of the mealy butter beans mashed up with green tahini and smoky baba ganoush is that there isn’t quite enough.
For £9.50, the squid and merguez with salmorejo (Toledo’s version of gazpacho) is steep: not a lot of squid. But these are good quality, porky merguez, and the salmorejo is energised by classy sherry vinegar. A quarter of cauliflower, flower, leaf and stalk intact, has been blanched and burnt to a degree of watery softness that borders on unpleasant, then drowned in tahini sauce and cinnamon. Why, we wonder, if the perfectly serviceable lamb shawarma is “straight from the grill”, is it barely warm?
On the toothsome front, the inviting embrace of the milky rice pudding is lessened by the mushiness of the grain, but pepped up by a blushing slice of quince scented with rosewater. Triumphantly light olive oil sponge served with fondant dates, date molasses, and yoghurt offers a lighter Middle Eastern spin on sticky toffee pudding. Baba doesn’t appear to have the Levant in its DNA, nor is it taking Middle Eastern cooking to a new inventive level, yet it’s still one of the best bets for eating on George Street.