20 Sloan St
Marrickville, NSW 2204
Ask any immigrant, and they’ll probably have a story about being the kid with the weird food at school. These days, having an exotically ethnic meal at the lunch table is a point of pride, but that was not always the case, especially if you grew up in a largely Caucasian community. As for myself, I remember trying to hide my lunch under my desk in year 6, eating surreptitiously and desperately trying to avoid any attention, lest someone comments on my odd-looking and smelling food.
Looking back however, it’s hard to believe that I was ever ashamed of my food, especially given just how much of a wiz my mum is at Chinese cookery. But tell that to a 12 year old trying to fit in. Baba’s Place however, is about celebrating that diversity. The restaurant may be rooted in the owners’ Lebanese and Macedonian heritages, but that’s not really what Baba’s Place is about. What they really wanted to capture was the experience of growing up as immigrants in Sydney’s western suburbs. The result is the very definition of the phrase ‘melting-pot’, showcasing a melange of ethnic backgrounds, all coming together to form a patchworked whole. And that’s about as Aussie as it gets.
Baba’s Place opened right in the thick of the Covid lockdowns, and although they did a roaring trade slinging takeaway – their Lebanese Filet-O-Fish was the talk of the town – the owners had grander visions for when the restaurant finally was allowed to open for dine-in. They had an entire warehouse to work with, and although I knew roughly what to expect, I was still thoroughly impressed with what they did with the space when I finally saw it in person.
To call this place excessive would be an understatement. Every bit of wall space is dedicated to some sort of photo, poster, or knick-knack, and every inch of floor is covered in lush Turkish carpets. Not even the ceiling was spared, burdened as it was with lighting of all varieties, and even more carpets. Combined with the vintage mismatched furniture and kitschy love seats dotted around, you’d think the effect would be overwhelmingly tacky. But you’d be wrong. In fact, the extravagance in such a lofty space feels rather grand, especially when you catch sight of the enormous open kitchen. Yet despite that, it still manages to keep its homely appeal. It really does feel like the place was opened by a grandmother (in this case, Baba) who is hell-bent on achieving the dream of feeding them all.
We were started off with a piece of Cucumber with Lemon Salt each, and although tiny, was an absolute flavour explosion. The crunch, the salt, the sour – they were fearlessly bold. We were told this was a bite ‘to wet the mouth’, and this was nothing if not overqualified.
It’s not Middle-Eastern without hummus, and in this case, it’s not just hummus – it’s Hummus X-Trad ($18). The creamy spread itself is already among one of the better ones around, but it’s the umami of the mushroom puree, and the sweet crunch of honey hazelnut brittle that really elevates this into something x-tra. And to go with the hummus, there’s some phenomenally soft pita bread, taken straight out of the oven in front of our very eyes.
The Fremantle Octopus ($23) came highly recommended by our waitron, and I was pretty convinced too after he told us that it was massaged for a whole hour, before being slow-cooked for another 5, then finally finished over an open flame. This was indeed as good as promised, the octopus succulent yet meaty, with a deep, smoky char. What makes this stand out however is the dressing of raspberry and olive oil, which in addition to just looking fab, also added a delicious fruitiness that you just don’t get with the usual lemon.
The Marinated Grilled Veg ($24) is one of the simpler options on the menu, but it is no less delicious for it. The smoky, pulpy eggplant is a highlight, but the other bits and bobs – silky drapes of bullhorn peppers, sticky slow-cooked zucchini, surprisingly tangy petals of shallot – are just as worth of your time. And when finished with a generous amount of white wine vinegar and olive oil, this all becomes rather luscious and indulgent, especially when eaten with more of that fantastic bread.
But the dish that I’m most excited for is the Bouillabaisse Bolognese ($34), which also happened to be the dish that originally got me interested in Baba’s Place. And oh my goodness is this something special. The already-rich lamb ragu was further enhanced by the umami-heavy additions of spicy XO sauce, smoky bacon pieces, and succulent chunks of king prawn. The result is a deep and savoury sauce with a luscious stickiness that coats every strand of the hand-pulled noodles. My only complaint is that the noodles could be cooked for half a minute less for that extra bit of chew, but otherwise this is about as good as noodles/pasta gets.
The Banana Saturday ($20) is worth ordering for the name alone, but the retro factor definitely gets an extra point too. Though simple, this has everything a good ice cream sundae Saturday should– banana chunks, chopped nuts, ice cream, plenty of whipped cream, and of course, a cherry on top. This got scooped up quick-smart.
It’s been a long time since I’ve had a meal with as much charm as Baba’s Place managed to dish up. Everything about the experience had an exciting other-ness to it, yet manages to feel instantly familiar to anyone who grew up in suburban Australia over the last 40 years. It is a loud and joyous celebration of Australia’s multiculturalism, and an ode to immigration. If I were to be completely candid, my only complaint would be that the prices are pretty steep for what’s on offer. However given the uniqueness of the entire experience, the quality of the cooking, and let’s be honest – the Covid Squeeze – it never felt like I wasn’t getting my money’s worth. It’s a bit more of a special occasional place than it initially appears, but if you want to impress someone with how in-the-know and cosmopolitan you are, Baba’s Place has got your back.
Rating: 14.5/20 – gotta feed ‘em all.
This rating reflects my personal experience at the time of visit.