If you’re lucky enough to work at the top end of the city, Babajan’s second outpost can be your go-to lunch destination. It's tucked away in a nondescript row of shops with the faintly perceptible gold letters engraved on the window the only indication that it’s Babajan, but the line out the door will nonetheless alert you to the plethora of pastries, sandwiches and desserts that await within.
Like its original shop in Carlton North – widely regarded as one of the more interesting and inventive brunch places in the inner north – which transitioned permanently into a takeaway-only venue during successive lockdowns, there is no space for dining in at Babajan’s Little Collins branch. There are a select few chairs outside but on a nice day, you’d be better off embarking on the one-minute walk towards the triangle of greenery between Spring Street and Macarthur Street and enjoying your food and Proud Mary coffee while soaking up some rays.
Uniformly organised floor-to-ceiling shelves stocked with Babajan’s retail products line the tiny store. Nothing in the glass cabinets except desserts is labelled, but the person behind the counter on our visit is only too happy to reel off the meticulously assembled daily rotating sandwiches, boreks and salads – with spices such as sumac, cardamom and baharat jumping out in his speedy introductions. Freshly baked rings of simit – sesame-crusted Turkish bread – sit on the counter too.
The two sandwiches on the day we visit are Babajan Little Collins’s specials: oregano and marash (Turkish peppers) field mushroom sandwiches with harissa and roast chicken sandwiches with preserved lemon and pine nuts. We opt for the latter and aren’t disappointed: freshly toasted, seed-studded doorstopper-thick wedges of bread sandwich moist chicken with a wonderful, soft tartness from the preserved lemons. It’s a lighter yet more flavour-filled take on your average chicken sandwich.
We take our pick between pumpkin and ricotta or silverbeet and feta boreks. Also freshly toasted for us in record time, the flaky and pleasantly oily filo pastry in the former encases ricotta interspersed with roasted pumpkin – almost eggy in its consistency – spiked with the fragrance of baharat, an all-purpose spice blend commonly used in Middle Eastern cooking.
Salads come in small and large containers, and you’re welcome to mix them up. It’s where we discover that Babajan’s a big fan of its orange starchy vegetables. Roasted until they’re caramelised on the edges and tender, roughly chopped carrots are the main feature of the pilaf, tinged yellow from turmeric, and where the long-grain rice is cooked so immaculately the grains remain fluffy and separate. Chunks of roasted sweet potato add a welcome sweetness to the well-spiced black-eyed pea salad, while the sliced hard-boiled eggs interlaced throughout give it some heft and creaminess. The potato salad with its caramelised strings of onion and bigger chunks of onion is perhaps the least memorable of the three.
For dessert, we’re told we can’t go past the Persian love cake. Less floral than its rosewater-heavy counterparts, the naturally gluten-free cake – owing to the inclusion of semolina and almond meal instead of wheat flour – has a soft and creamy denseness. The citrus of the poached pear top layer, the candied almonds, and the subtle spicing of cardamom and nutmeg culminate in a savoury sweetish cake, perfect for those among us who aren’t massive sweet tooths but still desire a dessert to round off the meal.
At a time when cost of living pressures are squeezing the wallet, prices at Babajan remain reasonable – $12.50 gets you a heady and filling sandwich, while the boreks retail at $8 each. You can’t go wrong with whatever you order at the newest addition to Babajan’s family, but it remains firmly for the work crowd – visit between 7am and 3pm on weekdays or make your way to Carlton North if you want the same goodness on weekends.