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The latest addition to Alan Yau's Soho empire offers fantastic Turkish food close to Chinatown
Please note, Babaji has now closed. Time Out Food editors, October 2018.
Alan Yau has created some of London’s most influential restaurants of the last quarter-century – Wagamama, Busaba Eathai, Hakkasan, Yauatcha. But he’s not one for shouting about how great he or his projects are. In fact, he rarely talks at all about himself or his work.
This has resulted in a game among London’s restaurant-watchers: What Will Alan Yau Do Next? The rumours are always legion, and usually wrong. In the last year I’ve heard that Yau was about to open all of the following: an Italian in Brompton Cross; a roast-duck place in Mayfair; a Cantonese restaurant in Soho; a pop-up burger joint with Elvis on Mars. (One of these might even be true. Why else would Nasa be investigating whether Mars can support human life?)
But not many people saw Babaji coming. In a radical departure from noodle bars, dim sum, Thai and Italian (Princi), Yau has opened a Turkish pizza place near Piccadilly Circus.
The Turkish connection was always there but has taken a while to come to fruition. Yau’s wife and oft-times business partner, Jale Eventok, happens to be Turkish, and the first non-UK branch of Hakkasan opened in Istanbul. But while some of Yau’s earlier projects – such as Sake no Hana – have been high in concept and oblivious to budget, Babaji is more in keeping with Yau the man: low-key and modest but delivering the goods with aplomb.
‘Istanbul Pide Salonu’ reads the gold lettering on the window; through the plate glass you can see the huge pizza oven that dominates the ground floor. Turkish pide (pizza) isn’t circular or whirled by dervishes; it’s elliptical, like late-night kebab bread. This pide comes straight from the oven, crisp and slightly elastic, and would be the envy of many an Istanbul lokanta. Our ground lamb mince was the real deal, fresher than many London lahmacun. Other toppings included seafood and some particularly enticing vegetarian versions, such as spinach, chargrilled red pepper, egg and feta. From oven to table took about one minute, the slight delay caused by the addition of some fresh flat-leaf parsley and shredded red cabbage salads.
Babaji also covers many Turkish signature dishes. Manti are Turkey’s version of the ravioli-like dumplings you find from Japan to Poland; here, they are filled with beef and laced with mild chilli and soothing yoghurt. Coban is the Turkish answer to ‘Greek’ salad, only better; the Sicilian tomatoes were skinned and ripe while mild green peppers added zip. There are also a dozen meze dishes, from fried-pastry böreks or calamari to artichoke with beetroot and olive oil. Prices give little clue to portion size (the manti were equivalent to a starter), but no dish is Green Lanes ginormous.
The service on our visit, from all-Turkish staff, was notably sweet and solicitous. When we asked how a dessert was made, our waitress checked with the dessert chef. Our fresh figs had been stuffed with chestnut purée, coated in ground almonds then served with a little scoop of ricotta-like kaymak. The Turkish coffees were smooth and sweet enough for an Ottoman feast.
Babaji is on two levels: sit on the ground floor if you want pizza action, as the chefs lunge into and pull out of the furnace with their wooden peels; head for the first floor if you’d like more space. For anyone making a night of it, there’s even a list of good Turkish wines. As the place is open until 11.30pm most nights, you can head there after a movie or West End show. It sure beats a kebab on the way home.
53 Shaftesbury Avenue
|Transport:||Tube: Piccadilly Circus|
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