Restaurant Reviews

Gigibaba, Melbourne restaurant review

Quixotic, exotic and yet strangely familiar, Gigibaba has emerged as a diamond in the rough in one of Melbourne’s most unlikely inner-city locations, reveals John Lethlean.

By John Lethlean
This restaurant has closed.
It's Sunday evening, Smith Street, the quintessential inner-city artery leading north from the city through Collingwood. Graffiti is everywhere and promotional music posters plaster just about every piece of wall or hoarding that hasn't been aerosoled. And a couple of pissed blokes have emerged from a bluestone pub to have a lukewarm go at beating each other up. Keep walking, darling, and whatever you do, don't stare.
It may be 2009, but Smith Street is defiantly resisting the gentrification of its backstreets, the apartmentisation of its warehouses, the professionalisation of its knocking shops and shooting parlours. What better place for the perversely media-shy and prodigiously talented chef Ismail Tosun, standard-bearer of new-millennium Turkish food in this country, to hang his shingle? Not that it's particularly well hung, so to speak.
You could walk past one of the most exciting eating houses in Melbourne today without even noticing Gigibaba and the hubbub within; Tosun, clearly, does not like drawing attention to himself.
It's all about the food.
Inside, at a broad white marble bar your average pastry chef would kill for, I ask the barman how Smith Street is treating them. It's only 6.30pm, after all; the usual evening crush and that peculiar juggling act known as the 'no bookings' policy are still an hour off, and he has time to indulge my curiosity.
He points to a newly installed coat rack near the front door and tells the story of recent diners - well-heeled foodies, it seems - who hung their jackets on the way in. When it was time to go, what with all the comings and goings of so many throughout the night, their garments were nowhere to be seen. You've got to sell a lot of dinners to pay for a $1900 jacket, so if you see someone dodgy wearing Comme des Garçons around Collingwood… er, don't approach them. And don't ask where they got the jacket.
Welcome to Smith Street.
Ismail Tosun - the name's Turkish, and that's important - grew up in Melbourne but, as a chef,  made a name for himself in Perth. Such a name, in fact, that in 2006 he was awarded Gourmet Traveller's  Best New Talent award. And then? Tosun, and the restaurant he made his name in, Eminem, disappeared.
Fast-forward a few years and Tosun is back on home turf in Melbourne with a new back-to-basics wine and food bar venture, Gigibaba. With table seating for 25 in a space lit by a string of oversized low-wattage bulbs, you'd hesitate to call it a restaurant as such. And really, does it matter?
Some of the past year's best eating in Melbourne seems to have happened at places where diners are more likely to have had their bottoms on a stool than on a padded chair or banquette. Gigibaba - an affectionate term for Tosun's grandmother - is a distillation of all those wine-savvy, shared-dish, small-portion, dine-at-the-bar restaurants that have emerged recently.
And, like MoMo's Greg Malouf, The Press Club's George Calombaris, Maha's Shane Delia or Rumi's Joseph Abboud, Ismail Tosun is a second-generation innovator. He venerates his culture and its food, but he also recognises the need to convey it in a modern way that builds food up to a standard, not down to a price. And, notwithstanding pioneers of Ottoman cuisine such as Greg Malouf and Serif Kaya, Tosun is part of a new generation determined to drag the cuisine of his parents' homeland out of the peasant ranks (from a public perception point of view) and into another realm of respectability in this country.
Gigibaba has the potential to be not only a very enjoyable restaurant but an important one too.
Arrive early. Sit at the bar if you're up for some dialogue with the indefatigably perky staff  (if not, try for a table), order an Efes pilsener from Istanbul and take a look at that menu. If you know some Turkish you'll be fine, but without it, be prepared for a whole new vocabulary: kizartma, fasulye, pastirma, kassar… It's exciting but also a little daunting.
Those staff - who seem the essence of cool but surprisingly without a hint of attitude - seem happy to explain, over and over and over. One of the things they keep explaining, too, is the 'no bookings' policy. It takes someone with real people-skills to manage it when things are pretty hectic around the doorway. At one point, a waiter beseeched a visitor at the door: "This is what we're all about, spontaneity."
I beg to differ: Gigibaba is all about food of rare finesse that follows universal themes of freshness, balance, harmony, textural juxtaposition, quality produce and very careful cooking.
Whimsical floral-patterned plates bear small portions of familiar yet refreshingly new appetisers, mezze, including Tosun's own garlicky, fenugreek-spiced pastirma: air-dried beef that is Turkey's most renowned cured meat. It's his first batch, we hear, hung for three weeks in the cellar beneath the restaurant. Thinly sliced, it has a wonderful, waxy texture, a deep crimson translucency and a length to its flavour I've never encountered before.
There's house-made hummus with the texture of crushed velvet, dressed with some chopped parsley, olive oil and sumac; baba ghanoush, scattered with walnuts, parsley and oil; and house-made rye bread crusted with black sesame seeds. From the first taste, you'll realise that these are flavours and textures that take time and quality produce to achieve.
The mezze selection is available for two or four diners; a collection of small, mainly meat dishes is offered as either two or four pieces; and the menu finishes with about eight mid-sized dishes.
Tosun's version of imam bayildi, Turkey's most famous dish, combines the soft textures of eggplant, onion, different peppers and herbs with tomato and garlic and goat's curd and mysterious spices. It looks a bit of a mess; it looks oily. It's neither.
Then there's the sarma, vine leaves rolled pencil-thin around spiced ground lamb and pine nuts with a tangy yoghurt dressing and dill. Double-peeled broad beans are tossed with slivers of roasted garlic, coarsely chopped parsley, excellent olive oil and aged white wine vinegar, again with a judicious drizzle of loose, white yoghurt.
In Turquoise, Greg's Malouf's book about Turkey, he says that, at the risk of oversimplification, Turkish food can be divided into Ottoman (the food of the urban affluent) and Anatolian (that of the rural poor). Tosun's twice-marinated 'Ottoman-style quail' is something special with a sticky, salty, golden skin, perfectly moist flesh and a kind of salad of lightly vinegared eggplant and marrow slices, roasted cherry tomato quarters and torn pieces of Italian basil.
A salad of diced cucumber, red onion, tomato and parsley, all dressed with lemon, olive oil and what I'm assuming to be house-made yoghurt, encapsulates many of the flavours and ingredients of the cuisine.
A red mullet dish, something akin to an escabeche, juxtaposes honey-sweet fish pieces with lightly pickled carrot slices and the toasty flavours of pine nuts, in a light, saffron-yellow broth. Intriguing.
Gigibaba lamb cutlets that come to the bar on a plate with precisely nothing to keep them company are testament to the chef's confidence in his seasoning. Bashed flat, they are barbecued over hot coals with a black sea salt and wild oregano rub that transports you to a sun-drenched place very far away. Brilliant.
If you're smart, you'll look for some of the slightly more modern dishes that lurk on (and off) the menu. Dishes like a 'sandwich' of grilled salmon, thinly sliced from the fillet, with a paste-like filling of Jerusalem artichoke, kassar cheese and pine nuts.
My personal favourite, the dish closest to a 'composed' restaurant offering I've seen from Tosun's kitchen, is the squab pigeon. It's a rare - and I do mean rare - roasted cinnamon and Antep chilli-rubbed breast and leg that shows impeccable cooking-time judgement, the seasoned, grainy dark exterior of the bird contrasting with the burgundy-coloured flesh within. It's served with a light, pigeon stock-based sauce, a hazelnut and beetroot salad and, on top, an individual, triangle-shaped pastilla of cinnamon-infused almonds and squab meat, garnished with a dollop of Jerusalem artichoke.
This is very special stuff; modern cooking with a real sense of provenance. And, indeed, the man behind the bar will have something you'll probably want to drink with such special food, even if the selection of continentals and locals is small. And he'll make every wine available in either a 120ml glass, a 300ml chemistry flask or a 500ml version. They even sell bottles.
Being a rather quixotic kind of place - the kind of place that sees answering phone calls and clearing voicemail as optional business practices - there's no dessert list. If you want something sweet, it's entirely at the kitchen's discretion at $8 a person for three to four pieces. Let me tell you, you'll want something sweet.
Dessert could be a sublime lokma, yeasted and fried batter a Greek would liken to loukoumades or an Italian to zeppoli, but here it's swamped with a hot, golden syrup laced with lemon juice, citrus rind and crushed pistachio. It's a bittersweet sensation. It could be a pot of almond and ground rice pudding with fresh cherry segments and ground walnut; it might be Gigibaba's own version of baklava, the best I've ever tasted; even a little Turkish coffee truffle (perfect, really, with its namesake); or an unusual layering of cassis, yoghurt, cassis-poached prune, crushed walnut and dreadlock shavings of bitter chocolate over the top.
But what's more exciting than this is the likelihood that next time round there'll be a completely different set of dishes, both on and off the menu. Like the waiter said, they're all about spontaneity. Go prepared for the unusual and you may come away grinning. Just remember to keep your coat on.