Take a magical carpet ride to BABA Cocktail Bar & Restaurant for the exotic, spicy taste of the Levant
Overlooking a charming private garden, The Principal Edinburgh Charlotte Square has been fashionably remodelled in a major refurbishment of the former Roxburghe Hotel. Across seven Georgian townhouses are elegantly designed bedrooms and suites, colourful, comfortable lounges and a glass-roofed indoor Garden for Twilight Tea, gourmet snacks, champagne and cocktails. For its glamorous revamp, The Principal was named “Style Hotel of the Year” (Edinburgh) at the Scottish Hotel Awards 2018.
A retro design theme is observed from the moment you walk into the lobby with its battered leather suitcases, books and an antique hat stand to evoke a time travel trip into the past and to exotic places.
This fits perfectly with the culinary theme of the BABA Cocktail Bar and Restaurant serving classic Levantine cuisine of the Eastern Mediterranean.
BABA’s cocktail bar is located through the hotel beyond The Garden, or also accessed around the corner and up the steps at 130 George Street – a cool blue, dark, dramatic space, with large sofas, piles of cushions, soft candle light and a long Bar counter with row of high stools.
A mural illustrates a fictionalised character, Mr Baba, based on a vintage photograph found in a Turkish souk: this mysterious gentleman is the inspiration behind the exotic food and drinks based on his travels around the Ottoman Empire. This is a similar scenario to The Voyage of Buck, William Street, former home of William “Buck” Clarence before his adventures to Paris, Cairo, Havana and India: the Bar’s cocktails reflect the people and places en route.
On arrival at around 5.15pm, the BABA Cocktail bar was unfortunately (and surprisingly) closed so my partner Ken and I were unable to experience this romantic hideaway for an aperitif before dinner. We therefore ventured next door to the BABA Restaurant and shown to a spacious and comfortable booth (shown here) in the corner.
The décorative design is all about distressed green and teal paint, colourful tiles, vintage lamps and Kilim wall hangings – a quirky, colourful blend of industrial chic with Moorish vintage vibes. A funky jazz soundtrack too hits the right, laid back mood.
The Levant covers the modern states of Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Syria, southern Turkey, and Cyprus all sharing strong Levantine influences – falafel, tabbouleh, hummus and baba ghanoush as well as grilled fish and meat. Mezze is an ancient tradition of the Greeks, Romans, medieval Arabs and Ottoman Turks, derived from the Persian ‘Mazza’ meaning ‘taste’ or ‘relish’ and designed as lighter dishes rather than hearty meals.
“ Mezze is a relaxing custom that can be enjoyed at any time of the day as an appetizer, snack or as a buffet spread, served in small quantities and shared at a leisurely pace.” Mezze, Small Plates to Share – Ghillie Basan
First of all the essential Cocktail to kick of the evening in sophisticated style. Ken selected Barberry Sour – Glenkinchie 12 year old single malt, date and barberry syrup, Cointreau, lemon and egg white, – a subtle citrus, smoky flavour to give the whisky a sharp kick. As a devout Gin fan, I order the SesaMartini, a concoction of Sesame Gin, dry Vermouth, orange bitters and halkidiki olives, a clever twist to a Dirty Martini.
Other inventive concoctions include Bloody Mariam, a B. Mary jazzed up with ras-el-hanout, sumac and harissa, and a Peach Baba-llini, in tribute to the Harry’s Bar classic.
With a bowl of olives to accompany our Cocktails, we studied the extensive menu. Our waiter explained that each Tapas style dish is about the same portion size and diners should choose about three each – six to share between the two of us from the Mezze, Grill and Sides. BABA has an open kitchen where you can see the Chefs at work, with its specially commissioned Charcoal Grill to cook a variety of fish and meat, Levantine-style over coals.
We selected Baba Ganoush, pomegranate and mint, & Beiruti Burrata (Mezze), Monkfish & Hake (Grill) and two Sides – spicy Cauliflower & Carrots. It might be helpful if the menu had symbols to clarify all vegetarian and vegan food, especially if unsure of a few unfamiliar ingredients – Muhummara (roasted red pepper dip), Labneh (yogurty cream cheese) and Za’atar (a spice like oregano).
Our order of dishes, we are warned, would be presented any which way as prepared .. and sure enough, (far too quickly as we had only just started to sip our cocktails), the two Mezze salads appeared with warm flat bread; this was delicious with the perfectly pureed, garlicky aubergine dip, dotted with pink pomegranate seeds and fresh mint leaves. Then the Side dishes arrived, followed (again too swiftly), by the grilled Fish. Our BABA banquet was served!
The Wine list is eclectic to complement the cuisine with a specialist Mr Baba Cellar collection from Cyprus, Lebanon, Turkey and Greece, as well as house wines, such a crisp Spanish Sauvignon Blanc or a blackberry-ish Syrah from South Africa. Also all bar drinks – Fizz, beers and ciders.
We sampled creamy Burrata cheese, a slice of cauliflower beautifully seasoned with ras-el-hanout, (an exotic blend of seven spices), blackened char-grilled Carrots, a delicate white slab of monkfish in a rich saffron, tomato & chickpea broth, and Hake with yellow split peas and butter sauce.
The plates are rather small so just take a little spoonful of each, then go back for more, mixing flavours and textures, cold and hot food together. Sharing a meal in this way is always such fun, when you talk about little else but the taste of the food!.
Meat lovers can sample Shawarma dishes, (Arabic for “turning”), the traditional method of slowly grilling chicken, beef and lamb on a horizontal or vertical spit over hot coals or firewood. Just like the Turkish Doner Kebab, this Lebanon delicacy ensures that the meat is equally cooked on all sides. At BABA you can try Baharata Beef Kofta with butternut, yogurt and Aleppo chilli, and slow-cooked Pork Belly with baked celeriac and raisins. Finish perhaps with a Chocolate Cremaux and Tahini ice cream or a rich Arabic-styled coffee infused with dates and cardamom.
There is a large team of young, friendly staff but it would be better if each table had a designated, named waiter to offer more personal attention. With the speedy service of our meal at the same time as pre-dinner cocktails, this is not in keeping with the tradition of Mezze, to be enjoyed at a relaxing, leisurely pace.
The imaginative concept of BABA has been created in partnership with the Principal Charlotte Square by Katherine Arnold and Robbie Bargh of London’s Gorgeous Group. They travelled all over the Eastern Mediterranean looking for inspiration for the menu and design to capture a unique environment to appeal to hotel guests and Edinburgh residents. As well as the main Restaurant, around the corner are a smaller dining room, Map Room and Salon for more intimate drinks and snacks with ephemera and artwork on a world travel theme.
Enter this magical world where the stage is set for an exciting, romantic, visually-theatrical and culinary journey to entice all the senses; experience a fantastic feast of fine Scottish produce with the exotic tastes and traditions of the Ottoman Empire, following in the footsteps of Mr Baba.
Principal Edinburgh Charlotte Square
38 Charlotte Square & 130 George Street, Edinburgh.
Restaurant dining: 12 noon – 10pm.
Cocktail Bar: 12 noon – 1am.
Tel. 0131 527 4999 http://www.baba.restaurant