Let’s get straight to the point: Babaji is not where you’d stop off for a cheeky kebab on the way back from the pub. It is a contemporarily furnished and tastefully decorated establishment on the touristy side of Soho, serving traditional Istanbul pide (pronounced “pee-deh”) to an eclectic crowd of local office workers, ex-patriate Turkish families, cosmopolitan couples on first dates, and in-the-know day trippers. It is one of the eateries belonging to serial restauranteur Alan Yau of Wagamama and Hakkasan fame, whose wife is Turkish. Think of pide as a kind of pizza without a tomato base, made out of long boat-shaped pitta bread, topped with a range of meaty or vegetarian options and sprinkled with Turkish and middle eastern spices.
When I visited for lunch on a Wednesday during the school summer holidays, I was relieved to find the place buzzy but not uncomfortably full, despite the throng of camera-toting tourists and their evil spawn clogging up the pavements of Theatreland outside. I was shown upstairs to the quieter first floor and instantly refreshed by a cool glass of ayran – a salted yogurt drink – as I perused the simple, uncluttered menu. Plentiful enough to keep the service swift enough even for a working lunch, the friendly waiting staff were happy to oblige with explanations of dishes that I was unfamiliar with.
I chose the goat’s cheese and walnut pide, which was deliciously creamy, whilst my companions ordered more carnivorous options along with side-dishes of humus, tabouleh, roasted eggplant and a bulgur wheat salad, all of which were pleasingly similar to their Lebanese counterparts, such as you’d find in a good Edgware Road staple such as Maroush. I tried my fellow diners’ selections and found the Kiymali Pide (minced lamb, tomato and pepper) a bit bland, lacking in kick to my asbestos-lined taste-buds, but the Develi (diced beef, tomato and Turkish green pepper with parsley) was excellent, as was the Mevlana (beef, lamb, sucuk and cheese) with its succulent, spicy sausage topping. If all that bread is not to your taste, Babaji also offer a range of classic grills, stews, salads and soups from various regions of Turkey.
Lunch was rounded off with moist pistachio-flavoured baklava, dripping with honey and accompanied by thick, black Turkish coffee, poured authentically from a tiny brass pot. It was good and strong enough to set me up for the inevitable fight with the hordes for elbow space on the walk back along Shaftesbury Avenue to nearby Piccadilly Circus tube station.
The cost of the meal was very reasonable, surprisingly for this part of town where neighbouring establishments are not averse to ripping off the odd visitor or two. The pide ranged in price from £7.60 to £9.90 and most of the side-dishes that we chose came in at around £4. Salads were good value at £4.50 to £6.90 and the Turkish coffee was £3 per cup.
Babaji makes a good case for a pre-show dinner or an evening with friends. It’s sufficiently casual to serve as the setting for a first date yet the quality of the food and decor is high enough to suggest it as the venue for a business lunch if you need to entertain a Soho-based client.
Babaji, 53 Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1D 6LB.