Another day, another George Calombaris restaurant opens. That man (along with Andrew McConnell and Chris Lucas) is taking over this town!
But that’s ok, when he’s able to bring consistently excellent food and service to the four corners of Melbourne. He’s got it all covered – north, south, east, central…the only place missing is west (and I’m sure it’s coming soon).
His southside and newest venture is Mama Baba, an Italian/Greek eatery celebrating the heritage of his parents – his Greek mother (Mama) and his half-Italian father (Baba). The focus is all about food, family and that infamous $45,000 pasta extruder so sorry gluten-intolerant diners, I don’t think there’s much here for you.
Happily gluten tolerant, Gourmet Chick, her partner in crime MTV boyfriend, RM and I enjoyed Sunday lunch there a few days after opening. Surprisingly, it was half-empty given Calombaris’ reputation (but I guess it’s early days) and given its hidden away location in a cul-de-sac in South Yarra I don’t think they’d be getting any passing foot traffic. Maybe some referrals from their neighbour The Olsen Art Series Hotel will help.
Despite the semi-empty warehouse feel to the premises we didn’t feel like we had to be hush-hush during lunch. The long length of open kitchen keeps the vibe noisy and bustling. It’s interesting theatre watching the chefs roll out bread dough, roast baby tomatoes and chop onions.
To start we shared some arancani ($7.5) of bolognese and mashed potato, grilled scallops with garlic skordalia and crumbs ($3.50 each) and the parma ($7.50), with varying success.
The parma was the surprising standout, given I’m not a fan of parmas generally. This was more of a American-style slider with an Italiano twist- a small sweet glazed bun filled with jamon, crumbed chicken fillet, some cheese and tomato ketchup and speared with some cutesy Greek and Italian flags.
The grilled scallops were plump and fresh though the delicate marine sweetness was a little masked by the heavy crumbing, while the arancini were not very appetising, though exactly as described – crumbled spag bol mince rolled up with mash potato and fried.
The main pasta menu is split into two section – Greek and Italian. We tried two dishes from each country, again with varying success.
A highlight was the fat tortellini filled with prawn, saganaki cheese and dressed with tomato and feta ($23). It was the perfect light, summery dish for the hot weather outside with a good balance of subtle flavours. My spaghetti carbonara ($27) was a fancy pants version of the peasant staple – slippery spaghetti with calamari, crispy pork bits, maple bacon, a sprinkling of pumpkin parmesan, with a saffron brodo poured over the poached egg wobbling on top, ready for the toss to create the carbonara sauce. It was fun and filling and will be great as a hearty winter meal.
I was less enamoured of the gnudi ($24). The golf-ball sized ricotta dumplings were served with a sauce of burnt butter, honey, walnuts, crispy sage and capers, making for an extremely rich and heavy-in-the-stomach meal. It’s a dish that is better shared – after that fifth dumpling you just want to crawl under the table and sleep.
I also didn’t particularly like the ravioles ($23) as I felt that the weak flavours of the celery and lemon didn’t match well with the heartiness of the shredded meat inside the parcels. Perhaps that combination is authentic Greek? Don’t accidentally order this if in fact you’re wanting ravioli with beef and bone marrow, beetroot, wasabi!
Dessert was a throw-back to hot school afternoon treats. Waffle ice cream cones ($8) were topped with milk and milo ice cream, vanilla splice and crunchy peanut butter and salt, with the latter being my favourite flavour – nutty and not too sweet.
From the dessert trolley we also tried a deconstructed version of the rum baba – the ‘Mum-baba’ and a very rich Ferrero Rocher ($10.50) (sorry, photos gone AWOL). While both were sophisticated takes on classic dessert combinations, I think I would have preferred two simple scoops of that crunchy peanut butter ice-cream instead.
I thought that the food at Mama Baba was generally good and the ambience, decor and service excellent – but out of all of Calombaris’ restaurants that I’ve tried, I feel that Mama Baba is the least strong of them all. Maybe it’s just too early to tell and it has a lot of buzz to live up to, so it’s worth giving the restaurant a chance.
View MEL: HOT OR NOT in a larger map