Restaurant News

Now open in Sydney: Baba’s Place, where nostalgia is the start of the journey, but not the destination

At this warehouse restaurant in Sydney’s inner-west, the owners’ Macedonian and Lebanese backgrounds tell part – but not the sum – of their culinary story.

By Yvonne C Lam
The dining room at Baba's Place in Sydney's Marrickville. Photo: Baba's Place
In this day and age of food provenance, could it get more specific than the labne at Baba's Place? On the menu at this warehouse restaurant in Sydney's Marrickville, the labne comes with its own global map coordinates. 34.29'N 35.84'E marks the spot for Kousba, the north Lebanese village of chef Jean-Paul El Tom's parents, and the birthplace of the thick yoghurt's starter culture.
It was brought to Australia, illicitly, on a plane; and this illegal migrant ingredient is what makes the Baba's Place labne so special.
"If you make yoghurt in Australia with [local starter], it'll make yoghurt the first time, it'll be alright the second time, but by the third time the yoghurt doesn't have the stamina or energy to keep reproducing, and ends up being runny," says El Tom. "They're like IVF babies. The yoghurt hasn't had time to evolve and strengthen the culture."
But age-old yoghurt cultures like the one from Kousba have decades, if not centuries, of bacterial evolution behind them. "They've evolved to the point where they're very rigorous in their reproduction skills."
Labne with toum (house yoghurt with garlic chive oil and Afghan bread). Photo: Baba's Place
It could be easy to overplay the significance, or romance, of the labne's provenance; "It tastes like my village," says El Tom. The transplanted culture is a handy analogy for time and place, memories of family and food. But El Tom and Alexander Kelly – children of migrants from Lebanese and Macedonian backgrounds respectively, high-school friends, and now, business partners – are happy to riff on culinary nostalgia, provided they don't become stuck in the quagmire of culinary authenticity.
Just because Kelly has Macedonian lineage, does not, for example, equal sarma (stuffed cabbage rolls) on the menu. The most disappointed diners at Baba's Place, they say, are those who expect its proprietors to adhere to tradition and memory above all else.
"As humans, we're not good at recognising our memories are composite. They're made up of many things," says Kelly. Yes, Kelly and El Tom grew up around the family dinner table, but their culinary memories and influences are multi-dimensional and malleable, shaped as much by grandma's kolbas for breakfast as McDonald's filet-o-fish for lunch. It's suburban food that's not afraid to go for a ride through Sydney's neighbourhoods, while taking the globe for a spin.
Co-owners Alexander Kelly and Jean-Paul El Tom. Photo: Baba's Place
So at Baba's Place, the labne is served with "toum", but the garlic dip has shape-shifted into a garlic chive oil; the hummus comes with lacto-fermented mushrooms and Afghan bread. The bar pours rakija, a Balkan spirit, from DNA Distillery, a Sydney-based rakija company established by two Macedonian-Australian cousins. There are chicken wings, that barbecue staple you'll find sizzling on backyard grills from Greenacre to Hurstville, but the winglets are free-range, glazed with buttermilk and shio-koji, and finished with a fermented-garlic crack caramel.
"Bouillabaisse Bolognese" is the culmination of repeat visits to Burwood's Xi Bay restaurant and many helpings of their signature oil-splash noodles. The result? Shanghai wheat noodles topped with prawn and bacon XO sauce, lamb ragù, diced cucumber and shallots.
"Bouillabaisse Bolognese" (prawn-bacon XO, smoked koji, lamb ragù, cucumber, shallots, Shanghai noodles). Photo: Baba's Place
El Tom is deep in the world of ferments, enzymes and Sandor Katz tomes, and explains the laboured process of making the Baba's Place chicken-garlic salt with the technical chops of a seasoned chemical engineer, his former career.
"If you're trying to separate oil and water in an oil reservoir, it's the same as separating chicken fat from chicken skin. You just need some acid – vinegar – instead of a polymer, which is what they'd use in an oil rig," he says. In the Baba's kitchen it's the same process, the same molecules, but on a smaller scale and with far tastier results: the chicken skins are crisp-fried, washed with vinegar, dehydrated, and combined with fermented-garlic solids, sumac and salt. You'll find it on their twice-cooked chips with lefet (pickled turnips).
The photo wall where an image of Baba, Kelly's maternal grandmother, takes pride of place. Photo: Baba's Place
Indeed, diners who walk into Baba's Place might be forgiven for expecting traditional dishes from the countries and cuisines that ring the Mediterranean Sea. The restaurant, after all, is furnished with lace curtains, vinyl chairs, tables double-lined with crocheted cloths and clear plastic, and a sizable portrait of Kelly's beloved maternal grandmother, the eponymous Baba.
It brings to mind Ho Jiak Haymarket, the Malaysian restaurant in Sydney's Chinatown that evokes the Penang family home of chef Junda Khoo, but with KFC rendang and lobster Indomie goreng on the menu. For restaurateurs from so-called "ethnic" backgrounds, representation can be a burden, but it can be a springboard for play, experimentation and self-determination too.
"[Baba's Place] isn't meant to be so nostalgic. It's got to be growing and changing because the city is filled with second-, third-, fourth-generation immigrants," says Kelly. "There's new stories to be told about our suburbs, about how we lived, and what food we should be making."
Baba's Place
20 Sloane St, Marrickville, NSW
Open for dinner Thu–Sat 6pm–10pm. Late-night walk-ins from 10pm for snacks and drinks