The latest addition to Alan Yau’s Soho emporium is Babaji, offering varied Turkish food in the heart of the capital. As the force behind London’s most influential Asian restaurants, from Wagamama and Busbaba Eathai, to Hakkasan and Yuatcha, this successor is a radical departure from his Oriental ventures. From his expertise in noodle bars, dim sum, Thai and Italian (Princi), Yau has opened a Turkish pizza place near Piccadilly Circus. Yet TimeOut informs me that his Turkish connection is longstanding: Yau’s wife and business partner, Jale Eventok, happens to be Turkish, with the first non-UK branch of Hakkasan opening in Istanbul.
Whilst Babaji Pide has a casual vibe and higgledy-piggledy chaotic service, its high-finish and Ottoman/Oriental design makes a claim for something more fancy than it actually is. The blue interior was certainly evocative of Turkey and even a Middle Eastern hammam. Dominating the walls and ceiling on both levels of the restaurant are striking handcrafted ceramic tiles that were produced specifically for this project by skilled crafts-people in Turkey. The angularity gives a contemporary nod to the geometry that is a resounding feature of historical Ottoman design. Indeed, Turkish design studio Autoban, led by Seyhan Ozdemir and Sefer Caglar, designed Babaji from their office in Istanbul. Yau’s vision to create a contemporary pide restaurant in the heart of London sparked the imagination of the design duo. Set intermittently into the tiles are simple hidden lights, adding warmth and accenting certain areas yet maintaining a low-lit atmosphere throughout. The seating is also comfortable. Autoban created new wooden chairs especially for the restaurant together with wood-topped tables boasting an intricate pattern inlay of small brass pieces.
Babaji’s menu, both drinks and foods, is an interesting read. Although tempted by the range of Turkish wines on offers, we were further attracted by the freshly pressed juices and house specials. We chose the Pomegranate juice (£3.20) and the Grapefruit Lemonade (£3). The latter option was certainly a refreshing winner, but the pomegranate juice – a first for me – was surprisingly sharp.
Onto food, there was nothing on Babaji’s menu that didn’t sound, to a very hungry group, totally delicious. For the starter options, the side of salty, grilled halloumi served on a bed of oily, sweet cherry tomatoes seemed decent. Eager to tuck in, we decided to share starters of Cacik (£3.50), a yoghurt with garlic and cucumber, and Fava (£4) composed of this vegetable as well as broadbeans, pomegranate and dill. Both dips were enjoyed with a side of Warm Flatbread (£1). Due to the business of this restaurant on a Saturday night, however, these starters did not arrive on time or in an orderly fashion. Whilst the yoghurt appeared first, the warm flatbread didn’t show up for an another twenty minutes. In the end we decided to save our pide crusts to enjoy alongside the green dip. Nevertheless, the yogurt particularly impressed my companion and reminded us all of an Indian raitu. For me, the garlic was undoubtedly the sparky ingredient. The light Turkish bread, meanwhile, although late, was welcomingly warm and ideally fluffy to enjoy the yogurt with. The Fava, however, was lacking a distinctive taste and certainly needed a drizzle of lemon to uplift and season the pureed beans.
For mains, we were tempted by the Pide: crispy, oven-baked pitta used as a pizza base, smothered, in our (vegetarian) case, with vegetables, smoky cheese and greens. The long pide are served in beautifully cut up hand-friendly pieces and with a generous handful of fresh flat-leaf parsley, rocket and lemon. As vegetarians, we chose to share the Alanya (£7.50) topped with Swiss chard, sultanas, and feta; the Birsen Alceler (£7.50) of chargilled courgettes, tomato, walnuts and goat’s chutney; and finally the Karacasu (£7.50) with spinach, chargilled red peppers, feta and usually (but not in our case) egg. The mild bitterness of the chard contrasted nicely with the gentle sweetness of the sultanas and the creamy earthiness of the soft feta pieces. Meanwhile, the goat’s cheese on the second pide matched deliciously well with the walnuts which lent a crunchy counterpoint to the topping. The chargrilled red peppers on this and the final pide were also sweet and contrasted the savoury taste of the pides.
Although tempted by the Turkish blakava desert, particularly given Turkey’s rich tradition of pastry making and pistachios, we were too full to manage this. We were also keen to not experience further delays to our evening here.
The service on our visit was notably sweet and solicitous, particularly from our Spanish waiter. The only problem for us was our positioning in the basement of the restaurant and the shocking delays this caused. Babaji is a three-level restaurant, but it seems that if you want top-notch pizza action, you should opt (or likely wait) for a table on the ground floor. This is where you can catch a sight of the action of the chefs lunging into and pulling out of the furnace the pides with their wooden peels. The huge pizza oven that dominates the ground floor offers a fantastic view of the pide which come fresh from the oven, crispy and elastic.
The prices are reasonable. Given the delays we experienced on our visit, we were particularly surprised to discover that Babaji Pide had chosen to omit the charges of the Pides! A two-course meal for three with drinks therefore came to approximately £16. Given the keenness of the staff to receive feedback, as well as their generosity in charging us, we’ll definitely return here for a ground floor seat and, as we were additionally informed by the manager, complimentary deserts!
Babaji Pide, 53 Shaftesbury Avenue, Soho, London, W1D 6LB