What a Low-Rent Turkish Kebab Joint Can Teach Hakkasan Founder’s Babaji: Review
This is a tale of two restaurants serving Turkish pizza, known as pide (say: pea-day).
One is Babaji, recently opened by Hakkasan founder Alan Yau on a prominent site in London's Soho. (Hakkasan started life as a basement Chinese restaurant on a back street in London and now has 12 locations, including New York and Las Vegas.) Babaji is beautifully designed by Autoban, an Istanbul-based studio whose concept is inspired by Turkish artisan traditions, using materials that showcase that country's culture and almost-forgotten craft techniques. Custom-designed vivid blue ceramic tiles, handmade by craftsmen in Istanbul, cover the interior space, which also incorporates traditional Iznik tiles, whose patterns appear on soft furnishings. The ground floor features a large stone oven.
The other is Gökyüzü, a kebab shop in Finsbury Park whose most prominent design feature is a glass case filled with meat skewers handcrafted by a few blokes. There's usually a queue.
Now, I am not above cheap shots as such. I rather like the David-vs.-Goliath idea of saying a large, low-rent cafe in a suburb trumps a designer restaurant on Shaftesbury Avenue, handily situated for the Groucho Club and other fashionable bars where Champagne and cocktails flow.
Inconveniently, it's not as simple as that.
Spice It Up
Babaji isn't bad at all. There are some enjoyable salads, such as tomato and walnut with pomegranate dressing, crunchy and sharp and sweet. It's a pleasure to watch flatbread emerge from the oven and arrive warm on your plate, to dip into cacik (yogurt) with garlic and cucumber.
You can order Turkish wine and see the chefs at work shaping leavened dough into pide. Pide are similar to pizzas, in that the bread base is topped with a variety of ingredients and quickly baked at a high temperature. Differences include the shape: The pide is like a boat, oblong with rounded ends. Also, there isn’t normally a tomato base to the topping, which usually comes with Middle Eastern spices like za'atar rather than Italian herbs.
Options at Babaji include Pide Develi, with diced beef, tomato, and pepper, for 8 pounds ($12). The meat is good quality, as are the vegetables. Great to go with the wines, a short inexpensive list that includes three whites and three reds available by the glass and carafe. (The cheapest bottles are 19 pounds.)
If you are feeling affluent, the vintage Okuzgozu, Kayra, 2011 (at 59 pounds) is dark and intense with hints of coffee and vanilla. It's a bold wine to go with big food.
What could go wrong?
A Thin Line
The main problem is that everything is under-seasoned. You're expecting to be socked with strong flavors that transport you to an Istanbul bazaar. Instead, you are greeted gently, your taste buds receiving a limp handshake and a how-do-you-do.
Now, the polite thing would be so say that Babaji offers subtlety and finesse. It's a restaurant where layers of flavors unfold, a place where there is no room for the salty kick of the late-night kebabs served to drinkers whose palates have been washed in beer and dried with salted peanuts. Fair enough, but it can be a thin line between subtle and bland. The best policy at Babaji is to ask for chili flakes and salt, coat your pide with a big squeeze of lemon, and enjoy.
This could become a good place to go if the seasoning were stepped up and there were a bigger dose of hospitality. My mood wasn't improved when I was sent outside to wait in the cold because I arrived almost 10 minutes before it opened for lunch.
Things are all so different at distant Finsbury Park, where the only bar to entry at Gökyüzü is that people are queuing out of the door. The place is packed. I delayed lunch until 3:30 p.m. to avoid the crush and it was still almost full.
The pide are generously topped but surprisingly subtle. The meat and vegetables in the Kusbasili Pide (8.50 pounds)—lamb with green peppers, parsley, red peppers, and tomatoes—are delicately diced, the base is thin and crisp. The spicy flavors are pronounced, without being aggressive. There's enough salt in there to enhance things without sending them over the edge.
It's a big and buzzy room: inexpensively decorated and filled with happy diners. There are many families, and the Cockney girl with her mate at the next table turns out to be Turkish. A large salad arrives as you sit down. The portions are huge. Order a mixed platter for two, and you may wonder if they mean two sumo wrestlers. There's even an easy-drinking Turkish white wine—Pamukkale Senfoni—at 14 pounds a bottle. Having finished my food, I offer to vacate the space and finish drinking in a corner. The waiter appears surprised. The table is mine.
Here’s the bottom line: Babaji is a sexy restaurant smack in Soho, an area that is close to my heart. The food is OK, and I assume it will improve, as should the hospitality. Gökyüzü is in a suburb I haven't visited for 20 years. The food is better, as is the welcome, but I probably shan't go back.
Turkish cuisine is well represented in London, but mainly outside the West End. Yau—whose wife is Turkish—will be doing us all a favor if he brings it into the mainstream. But he's not there yet.
Babaji is at 53 Shaftesbury Avenue, Soho, London, W1D 6LB; +44-20-3327-3888 or babaji.com.tr.
Gökyüzü is at 27 Grand Parade, Finsbury Park, N4 1LG; +44-20-8211-8406 or gokyuzurestaurant.co.uk.
Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines.