Even after having spent most of my life in the Middle East, I had never come across the terms ‘Levant’ or ‘Levantine’ before. In school, we studied about countries like Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Turkey in the epochs prior to and after the dilapidations of empire, referring to them under the umbrella of the Eastern Mediterranean or the broader, Middle East. It is perhaps telling that the first time I encounter the term is in the West – in Scotland of all places – to describe a menu evidently affecting the occidental fascination with the Orient.
Etymologically, both ‘Levant’ and ‘Orient’ are derived from the Latin words levant and oriens respectively, one a conjugate of levare (to raise) and oriri (to rise). These words were incorporated to refer to countries originating from where the sun rises, a mode of description that perceptibly contributed to the aura of inscrutability around them. After the first evidences of usage in the 15th century, Levant and Orient undertook an evolution of meaning in the 18th and 19th centuries where they directly referred to all places east of the Mediterranean. Consequently, the people from these regions were called Levantines and/or Orientals, which are both signifiers that are deeply linked to the Othering, mystical Western narrative of the East.
I do not think it is unfair for me to suggest that such colonial remnants seem to reveal themselves within the décor at BABA. For someone such as myself who has studied the nuances of colonialism, these elements presented to be more than a little unsettling.
The dining rooms are made crepuscular by both the dark walls and the light from familiarly shaped lanterns, some akin to traditional street lamps and others, on the higher ceilings, of fabric woven Middle Eastern replicas of hand drums. There are also ornately framed paintings, mirrors and maps dotting the same walls, patterned ceramic crockery on tables and cabinets along the corridors, and Persian rugs underneath polished wood tables and velvet chairs. Water is served in from a remarkably large ceramic jug, poured into glasses placed on similarly painted tile coasters. It was almost like visiting an old colonialist’s mansion, one newly decorated by trophies from his exploits in the East.
I suppose that to the ignorant, the setting is intriguing in the way that it demonstrates an elegant take on the Middle Eastern thematic. The atmosphere is snug, warm and elegantly decorated, propounding an intimacy that makes for good conversation and general sociability. Since I was invited to BABA by friends, I resolved to sweep my politics under the rug and give myself over to ignorance. The place is so charmingly poised that it was embarrassingly easy to forget my initial feelings of discomfort and enjoy the surficial ambience.
Phasing out another waitress laying down the ‘concept’ (no real structure, food comes when done, etc. etc.), I glanced over BABA’s menu which immediately struck me with the post traumatic dread of vegan restaurant ingredient lists. Usually these signs are indicative of experimentation and chef-y flamboyance. Fortunately, however, this feeling soon dissipated because nothing on there was unfamiliar to me, and in addition I must say, having a ‘try them all’ option at the bottom, pertaining to the dips, definitely endeared the restaurant unto my heart.
The waitress who looked perceptibly restless, was worried that two ‘try them all’s, a couple of cauliflower fritters and singular haggis kibbeh would not be enough for four of us. We reassured her that we weren’t looking to be filled to the bursting and went along with what we’d originally decided. Though I was not particularly ravenous, I was comforted by the fact I was surrounded by three vegetarians and thus would have the kibbeh all to myself.
The technicolour butter plates of what would have been portions on a remarkably diverse mezze platter, descended upon our round table not long after our order was sent through. In all fairness it might have been a little while before they arrived, but as it happens when engaged in conversation, time passes significantly quicker. The assortment demonstrated to be a true flavour showcase, out of which the highlights were most definitely the baba ghanoush, too smooth a puree to be traditional yet producing an reminiscent interplay of robust aubergine with garlic, tahini and a subtle lemony twang; the creamy beetroot hummus that danced beautifully with the accompanying salt-tinged whipped feta and crumbly hazelnut dukkah; and, my personal favourite, the sweetly sanguine muhammara, made authentically with roasted and then pestle-ground red pepper, garnished with vibrant aleppo chillis and chopped walnuts for that pertinent crunch. Everything was well executed, with conspicuous attention paid to ingredients.
My biggest issue was to do with us only receiving one puny pita for each person, with the ridiculous suggestion that if we wanted more it would cost us a pound for every extra one ordered for. Pita is easy to make and cheaply available, so there is no requirement beyond greed not to provide a whole basket for a couple of quid. With the bread not being enough, and me being to stubborn to spend more, I ended up eating the rest of my dips with a teaspoon.
Then came the cauliflower fritters, whose batter was crisp and well-seasoned, with cauliflower within that was yieldingly soft and gratifying. The slathering of the fragrant pesto-like herbiness of the zhug mingled with the cool velvety crème fraiche atop the fritters, created the kind of dish you would naturally want to recommend to new guests.
But if I ever am to return to BABA it would have to be specifically for the haggis and harissa kibbeh. No doubt in my mind, they were the most succulent kibbeh I’ve had in a very long time. About the size of Lindt truffles, these appetizers were far smaller than the customary varieties that would take more than a single bite to consume. Instead of the familiar meat and bulgur wheat consistency of the kibbeh, these haggis innovations were extraordinarily soft and juicy, crisply coated though with a texture more loosely packed, unctuously disintegrating with every bite. They were absolutely gorgeous reminders of why I am unashamedly carnivorous.
A couple of chocolate covered, tahini-cream stuffed, ginger enriched dates with some aromatic cardamom coffee was the perfect way to bring our meal to a close. We sat catching up and nibbling on our food for close to two hours and enjoyed the timelessness of being in good company. Despite my first impressions of BABA, it would be unjust of me to colour my final assessment of the place based on my understanding of their interior design that could very well be innocent and with good intentions. Though portions are small, the food at BABA is delicious and deserving of the praise it gets.
130 George St, Edinburgh EH2 4JZ
Starter plates £2.75-£3.75; Dips £4.00-£5.25 (try them all £17.00) ; Mains £8.00-£12.00