Babajan Is an Exemplary Melbourne Cafe. But What Does That Even Mean?



MELBOURNE, Australia — New York has its pizza, Paris its baguettes, Tokyo its ramen bars. Melbourne has cafes.

Australia is celebrated for its cafe culture, but that is one of those phrases that obscures the meaning behind it. What is “cafe culture”? Why does it matter? Does it matter? You can get good coffee in almost any city in the world these days. And what differentiates the cafes of Melbourne from anywhere else’s?

It is tempting, when considering this question, to tell you about the cafe that serves a breakfast degustation menu. But instead I’m going to tell you about Babajan.

This small neighborhood spot in Carlton North does not need a tasting-menu gimmick. Babajan is not Instagram famous; there is no line around the block. It is a simple operation with an open kitchen in the back, a handful of tables and some sidewalk seating out front. And yet, it represents the kind of approachable pleasure typical of the city’s best cafes, an abundance of goodness that’s imminently accessible.

Babajan was opened in mid-2016 by the chefs Kirsty Chiaplias and Ismail Tosun. Mr. Tosun is Turkish-Australian, and the food at Babajan is heavily influenced by Turkey. Ms. Chiaplias, who began working in Melbourne restaurants when she was 16, has a résumé that includes one of the city’s most popular cafes, Alimentari, and a stint working in London for Gordon Ramsay.

Mr. Tosun is no longer with the restaurant, but the benefits of the two chefs’ collaboration remains. The magic of Babajan — and other cafes of its ilk — is in its ability to take all the care of fine dining, combine it with the ease and love of ambitious home cooking, and bring it into the realm of everyday eating; to allow moments of transcendence over a Tuesday morning meal.

The bread is the first thing that inspired my slight obsession with Babajan: a warm roll of pita that comes alongside a dish of ground lamb cooked with baharat over a pool of tangy hummus, with a fried egg and a shock of magenta pickled vegetables. The bread was soft and pliant and dusted with za’atar, better than the stiff pita I’ve had at much fancier Middle Eastern restaurants around town.

At lunch, a crisp-skinned snapper came in a cast-iron skillet, swimming in tomato spiked with olives and anchovy. Simit, a Turkish bread that resembles a wide bagel crusted with sesame seeds, was for sopping up the sauce. Chewy but not too dense, and slightly warmed in the oven, the bread was the highlight of the (already very good) dish.

Intensely juicy, slow-cooked lamb shoulder makes its way onto a number of plates, often as an optional add-on. You can have it on your Aleppo eggplant toasted sandwich (or toastie, in Australian parlance) with fermented chile and sumac onions, or on your Turkish baked eggs where it swims in the spiced tomato, topped with pistachio dukkha.

Behind the glass counter on one side of the room, a sea of deliciousness piles up over the course of the morning. It begins with pastries like Persian love cakes — dense with almond flour and lightly aromatic from rosewater — among cookies, croissants and pies. Then platters arrive, heaped with food to go: rice salads; vegetable salads; a pile of slow-roasted lamb muddled with hunks of sweet pumpkin, black-eyed peas, yogurt and hazelnuts.

Is there avocado toast? Of course there is. The avocados are served in a jumble along with smoked trout, fava beans and goat curd. It is creamy and smoky and tart and rich and achingly, beautifully green.

In April, Babajan began serving dinner two nights a week, after years of customer requests. Dinnertime in the cafe has the feel of a pop-up, and the food isn’t that different from what’s available at breakfast and lunch (though there are fewer eggs by far).

There was a lovely slump of eggplant kizartma, cooked down to its soft essence with tomato and topped with yogurt and pomegranate. Kingfish sat in a pool of tomato and Kalamata olives, with a drizzle of tahini — it’s strikingly similar to the snapper dish served at lunch. The braised lamb shoulder used to enrich so many breakfast dishes can be ordered on its own, for four or more people, as a meaty feast.

Babajan is exceptional, but this level of quality is not unexpected. We pride ourselves on this way of life in Australia, especially in Melbourne, where good food is everywhere, at every time of day and at every price point.

We also take it for granted. This blasé attitude comes at a cost: the real credit — the kind that results in awards and accolades and book deals — is rarely given to Australian chefs who toil over breakfast rather than dinner. In America, chefs like Jessica Koslow of Sqirl have found fame by delivering the same brand of casual daytime excellence that Melbourne has known for decades.

I enjoyed eating dinner at Babajan. I appreciated drinking a bottle of wine with a longer meal and the camaraderie of spending a couple of hours with a service staff that had time to shine. But Babajan is built for breakfast and lunch.

It’s those meals, with the sun streaming in and the controlled chaos of cafe service, that stand out. I am someone who eats constantly, daily, in every type of restaurant. I eat a ton of precious, expensive food — yet my meals at Babajan have been imminently more memorable than most of the pricey fare. That’s a gift that deserves wild applause, no matter the time of day.

Do you have a suggestion for Besha Rodell? The New York Times’s Australia bureau would love to hear from you:, or join the discussion in the NYT Australia Facebook group. Read about the Australia Fare column here.

Follow NYT Food on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest. Get regular updates from NYT Cooking, with recipe suggestions, cooking tips and shopping advice.