“Be scathing to Mama Baba, I’m still missing my calamari.”
This was the text message I received from Nik, aka Doctor Ethnic, post our Friday lunch at Mama Baba. This isn’t the first time a dining companion has insisted that I lay into an establishment with outraged gusto, but in this case I certainly was feeling conflicted about it. Because on the one hand, in terms of space and service Mama Baba provided an amazing experience. But the food? Hoo boy, the food… there were some pretty glaring problems.
But let’s start at the beginning, shall we?
Doctor Ethnic is sadly cursed with a Greek grandmother who cannot cook (let us have a moment of silence for him) and is well-versed in Greek Food Gone Wrong. I wanted his knowledge alongside me as I traversed the idea of of a Greek-Italian pasta restaurant. Because despite the fact that the whole shebang is helmed by George Calombaris, I was having qualms about the idea without having even stepped through the door (oh Hayley, you perpetual Doubting Thomas). But! I am always willing to be proven wrong with good food, and since Mama Baba is only a skip and jump away from work it seemed churlish not to investigate.
Friday afternoons are the only time Mama Baba is open for lunch, and it seemed to be a nice, low-key visiting option. We were greeted very warmly by the staff, and sat down with a bag filled with a variety of breads and ample little wrapped pats of butter. The bag idea was cute, but kind of reminiscent of Adebisi’s hat in Oz, the realisation of which took me on a train to all sorts of weird thoughts.
We started off with some polenta chips to share, served with a dipping sauce made of sour cream and chilli soffritto. The polenta was lovely and smooth inside, but the fine crumbed coating was pretty tasteless and neither of us could figure out what it was spiced with, if with anything at all. And the sour cream sauce was just all-out WEIRD. It was a big blob swimming in a clear, slightly chilli-ish sauce and covered in what seemed to be cubes of carrot. No matter how we decided to eat it, there wasn’t any way that seemed to cause the dish to make sense, and Nik and I essentially made a lot of faces at each other that translated to “This just isn’t working.”
Mains time! From off the ‘Greek’ side of the menu I ordered the pastitsio, which was described on the menu in three words: “wild greens, béchamel.” Turned out it was actually a kind of pasta bake, which I’m always totally okay with, with penne tubes entrenched in béchamel sauce and a strong, parmesan-like Greek cheese (I think kefalotyri), and threaded with long seams of greens, probably kale. It was really quite lovely, although hearty and heavy, so requires a sturdy belly.
Doctor Ethnic, however, was not so fortunate in his choice. He strayed over to the Italian side of the menu with the bucanti, which was described on the menu thusly: “carbonara, calamari, crispy maple pork, pumpkin parmesan, saffron brodo.” The presentation was certainly spiffy: it came out crowned with a raw egg yolk, and the waitress poured over a clear, hot jus, the idea being that you mix it through and it turns into a sauce once all the ingredients are combined.
But after this point, things started to really Go Wrong. The second advertised ingredient, calamari, failed to materialise. Unless it had been emulsified into its base properties to the point of not tasting like calamari anymore, it was not there. The crispy maple pork was sweet to a fault, and combined with violently orange pumpkin parmesan, made the whole dish far too sweet for my dining companion’s palate. Doctor Ethnic was not pleased, not pleased at all, and I was left with that particular feeling of guilt when you drag friends along to a food place that turns out to be not as great as you were hoping.
It really is tragic that the food was quite disappointing, because the space at Mama Baba is really something. I kept thinking that it would be a great place to take someone on a fancy date, where you could be all “Oh yes, look at the lovely place that I have taken you to, where you can see into the beautiful clean kitchen and the chefs making pasta from scratch, and see that amazing bar set up on the other side with all the bottles displayed up to the ceiling, and aren’t these waiters delightful and quirky and ever so kind, yes this is all quite special, NOW KISS ME YOU FOOL.” But then it would be ruined because your date would end up angry over weird polenta chips and over-sweet, non-calamaried pasta, and you’d start regretting getting so overexcited at the chemist earlier in the day, because clearly you’re not going to need so many condoms now, and you’re starting to traitorously think that even though your pasta bake was really nice, you probably could have made a similar dish at home for a lot less trouble.
And now that I’ve depressed myself with an imaginary date scenario THAT I MADE UP, let’s all just pretend that the date was salvaged by one of our fictional daters, who ended up placing the bread bag on their head and made some quips about shanking. Because that’s what really brings people together, violent HBO dramas about prisons. Not weird pasta.
21 Daly Street, South Yarra
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