Joanna Blyth­man re­views Baba

The Herald on Sunday - Sunday Herald Life - - CONTENTS - Joanna Blyth­man

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.

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