This week’s column comes direct from my kitchen, where I’m making dinner with a little help from George Calombaris. His moonface is plastered on the container of cream that promises to add a “dollop of happy” to my pasta sauce.
He’s everywhere, isn’t he? When you’re not glued to him on MasterChef, the cheeky Greek is popping up in your Coles supermarket or peering at you from the nearest bookshop.
Some cultural commentators have begun to knock him, but I don’t despise Our George. To me he’s simply another curious product of the Modern Australian celebrity machine, in which otherwise ordinary folk are given extraordinary opportunities.
Calombaris is just making the most of those opportunities and, penalty-rate rants aside, he’s not doing a bad job of it.
Hellenic Republic is the grooviest Greek restaurant in this city of 800,000 Hellenes; St Katherine’s has brought some much-needed excitement to the eastern suburbs and now Mama Baba is shaking up South Yarra. Not always in a good way, if you believe online diner feedback, but each to their own. I like Mama Baba.
This hybrid Italian-Greek eatery – a homage of sorts to George’s Greek mama and Italian-Greek baba – is slotted up the rear of Daly Street. To reach the basement, restaurant diners pass a glass-walled kitchen-cum-pasta factory stacked with trays of spaghetti, bucatini, hilopites egg noodles and other pasta permutations. The effect is appetising.
The dining room proper is a lofty concrete shell furnished with timber benches and not-so-basic canteen chairs in steel and leather. There’s a DJ behind the bar in a cute throwback to early last decade.
Perky staff sport red-and-white polka-dot scarves tied in creative fashion – around the knee, as a headscarf or hanging out the back pocket.
We kick off with cocktails from a lively list that runs from Negronis to the perilous-sounding Metaxa Sidecar. I don’t mind the house pompelmo but I can’t taste any booze in it. That said, my tolerance for gin is off the charts.
Mama Baba’s ambitious wine list offers Italian whites and reds sorted by geography alongside a smart selection of local labels, a handful of Greek vintages and even some very special and very expensive drops dispensed via the Enomatic.
The placemat menu lists drink-friendly snacks such as juicy grilled scallops with a crust of golden fried breadcrumbs and a tangy splodge of skordalia, and bite-sized bolognaise-and-potato arancini that make me take back everything I ever said about Italian rice balls being pointless and tasteless. He should sell these babies in take-home packs at the door. (I’m a little surprised he doesn’t given that almost everything else – the matt black cutlery, the crockery, the cookbooks – is available for sale to customers keen to add a little Calombaris magic to their home. Ask your waiter for a price list.)
The pan-Med menu is divided into Greek and Italian pasta dishes, a trio of non-pasta mains (fish, roast, vego) and fun desserts called “Inspired by Fanta” and “Tiramisu on a Stick”.
Half of me likes the kooky nature of the dish descriptions but the less-charitable part of me wishes someone had given it a good edit. The waitress probably gets as bored as we do running through precisely what is meant by “Byzantine vinaigrette” (it contains red grapes and dried fruits) or kakavia risotto “Inspired by the fisherman, pilu avgotaraho” (seafood risotto with bottarga). Perhaps they should issue each guest with a Calombaris-English dictionary.
The free-spirited menu also oversteps the mark sometimes, as with the carbonara that is not carbonara at all but an impostor of calamari, saffron broth and parmesan dust. (Anybody? No? Dust!) Naturally, I don’t try it.
Instead, we go for agnolotti stuffed with chicken, scented with thyme and sprinkled with toasted anchovy breadcrumbs. Add a simple sauce of herbs, stock and butter and you’ve got a pretty tasty meal.
The tortellini filled with prawn saganaki (pan-fried) has a similar herb hit – dill this time – and it’s swimming in an intense tomato and prawn oil enriched with feisty fetta crumbles.
It’s 9.15pm on a Sunday and the restaurant is barely half full. This is surprising and annoying because, when we booked, staff only offered two sitting times – 6.30pm or 8.30pm – which made me think they were insanely busy. They’re not. They’re just uptight.
We’re excited about sweets. The waitress wheels a trolley across so we can eyeball the prepared pudding selection as she’s describing it.
We buy the lemon trifle, sold on its lemon jelly studded with limoncello-soaked sponge. But in reality it’s only the lemon curd topping that has any great depth and intensity of flavour.
Frozen tiramisu on a stick is a bit of a dud too. It is mostly creamy rich vanilla ice-cream caked in crisp chocolate, like a plain mini-Magnum. Towards the bottom there’s a smattering of biscuity bits and chocolate crunches but nothing to get animated about.
But also nothing to put me off going back to Mama Baba next time I’m in the neighbourhood.
21 Daly Street, South Yarra
Cuisine \ Mediterranean
Chefs \ George Calombaris and Dominic Pipicelli
Hip pocket \ $40-$50 a head for dinner, depending on hunger levels
Open \ 5pm-late daily from noon Friday and Sunday
Highlights \ Pasta! Fun fit-out
Lowlights \ Dessert! And booking fascism
Bookings \ You betcha Phone \ 9207 7421
We rate it 7/10