20 Sloane Street
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|Opening hours||Thu-Sun 6pm-10pm|
|Characteristics||Accepts reservations, Licensed, Groups|
|Prices||Moderate (dishes $20 to $40)|
|Payments||eftpos, Visa, Mastercard|
Anyone who lived within three miles of Baba’s Place during Sydney’s last lockdown was lucky. Take-out cherry kofta, samk and harra (“Lebo-filet-o-fish”) with toum salt fries and sour cherry soda lifted the spirits and brought newness to repetitive days.
But even though their take-out game was a local buzzword, owners Alex Kelly and Jean Paul El Tom had a bigger vision for their restaurant when the rolling doors opened for dinner.
“We didn’t take over this fucking warehouse just to take out,” Kelly says. Between the vast space, the fearless experimentation of the owners and the thirst for novelty of local diners, Baba’s Place lives up to its potential.
It can be easy to frame the menu as a modern take on Middle Eastern or Eastern European cuisine; El Tom and Kelly are respectively of Lebanese and Macedonian descent. But that would be missing the point. Baba’s Place is an ode to their childhood as migrant children in Sydney’s west.
The food reflects the unity that children of migrants often find among themselves, not because they have a common heritage, but because they have a common otherness. Drawing inspiration from the diversity of Western Sydney, Baba’s Place celebrates cuisine and culture in a way that refuses to be limited by national borders, language or ethnicity.
“National cuisines don’t exist,” Kelly says. “I think if you try to compartmentalize food in binary terms, you’ll have a hard time.”
El Tom adds: “It’s hard to tell that a kitchen comes from one place or another. Much of what we have in Australia is exactly what was in the suitcases when people immigrated. “
A good example is bouillabaisse bolognese, which evolved from a dish that is part of every Australian’s childhood. “It doesn’t matter if you’re Italian, spag bol is such a big part of people’s food existence,” Kelly says.
El Tom’s version of the ubiquitous dish resembles zha jiang mian (fried noodles with Beijing sauce). “I love shrimp and bacon, so I make a kind of XO sauce with fresh shrimp, bacon and fermented chili and mix it into a paste. This forms the base of the sauce. Then it’s mixed with lamb stew and prawn head broth and served over fresh noodles with cucumber and smoked koji infused oil.”
The Baba’s Place menu inspires a bring me one of everything attitude, which is a good strategy for a group. This way you can try the trio of fried whole fish with taratour (lemon juice and garlic tahini), shatta (green chili sauce) and fried afghan bread, as well as the sweet scallops finished with koji and savory toum fries served with baby cos and lefet (marinated red turnips).
The salted plum cocktail with rakija may be divisive, but anyone who loves huamei – sweet and sour and salty Chinese dried plums – will enjoy the drink. On the evening of my visit, any members of my party unsure of the flavor combination had their cocktails taken away and generously replaced by the affable Kelly. The dining room pumps, but the service was impeccable.
At Baba’s Place, everything seems to come back to the theme of identity, from the decor – sofas covered in transparent baba-style vinyl, tables decorated with doilies and lace curtains at the windows – to the labneh, so deliciously lively that it is on the razor’s edge. of bubbly, and is also migrant of sorts.
“It’s made with an old culture that comes from my village in Lebanon. My grandmother smuggled it here a long time ago,” says El Tom.
The conversation turns to how old the yogurt culture might be, with Kelly suggesting it could be hundreds of years old.
“It’s old in the sense that we are old because we have ancestors. We are an old collection of DNA,” says El Tom.
Given the history of yogurt culture, it’s likely to remain on the menu in one form or another. But with jaw-dropping dishes like Lebo-filet-o-fish and cherry kefta, will bolognese bouillabaisse ever go down too?
“Nothing is sacred,” says El Tom.
The main attraction: A menu that fearlessly experiments, celebrating Australia’s waves of migration.
Essential dish: Bolognese bouillabaisse with artisanal noodles.
Drinks : A short list of wines from Lebanon, Eastern Europe and Australia, tasty rakija-based sodas and the usual suspect cocktails.
Evaluation: Four stars (out of five).