When Babuji opened three years ago, our verdict on the South Asian streetfood café was simple: “near-flawless.” A reinvention of the longstanding Indian restaurant Gulshaan, its bright turquoise exterior and engaging font shines irresistibly in its location directly opposite Kentish Town tube station.
The interior is eye-catching, too. Traditional curry house this is not: there’s wood panelling on one wall, and glossy teal tiles above a tan leather banquette. Pendant lights, casual rattan bentwood repro chairs and patterned floor tiles all cast a nod to a classic train station cafe.
Even the brushed concrete back wall is decorated with old family photos by the open kitchen. So why the name? Quite simply, Babuji refers to owner Mo Miah’s father, who travelled through Bangladesh, India and Pakistan back in 1959 before settling in the UK, where he worked in The Ivy before starting Gulshaan way back in 1982.
Yep, the family have owned this site for exactly 40 years. No mean feat in the current climate.
The dishes on offer mirror those Babuji encountered, from Bengali bites to traditional Pakistani homely fare. There are Chaats (roadside snacks), Biryanis, Garam Grills, and an exciting roll call of ‘Ruby Murrays’ – curries – such as Butter Chicken, Dabba Gosht (slow-cooked lamb in tomato sauce) and a Chole Masala (tangy vegan chickpea curry).
These creations can all be found in the street stalls and cafés of Calcutta, Mumbai and Lahore – Babuji’s three personal favourites, says Mo. “Our food can be described as Desi style – which simply means home-style South Asian cuisine.”
With a refreshed menu just in time for winter and the festive period, there are some new highlights that are well worth discovering – whether you’re a regular or simply haven’t been in for a while.
This week I popped by for lunch to taste a few. From the streetfood (chaats) section, Mo encourages his customers to order Shingara Chaat, a crushed Bangladeshi shingara (similar to a samosa, but with thin, flaky pastry) topped with yoghurt, sev (crunchy chickpea flour noodles), chutney and coriander, bejewelled with a pomegranate or two. It’s the perfect palate-tickling explosion of different flavours and textures to share with a friend. Or just scoff it whole, as I did.
There’s also a tasty new selection of dosas (some plant-based), the famous crispy pancakes from South India. My tip is the classic Massala Dosa, whose hearty potato filling is mixed with mildly fiery gunpowder paste, its edges addictively golden. Warning: it’s easily a lunch in itself. And yet I scoffed it all too.
A vegetarian dish to enjoy while hunkering down from the cold is undoubtedly the Paneer Butter Massala (£9.95): I loved its creamy richness, the cubes of paneer cooked with a dash of spice, its gently ginger-fuelled heat offset by a lightly unctuous, tomato-rich sauce.
And lastly, carnivorous types need to sample the quirkily named Chicken 65, a spicy plate that subtly combines sweet and sour flavours. It uses only thigh meat marinaded in peppers and chillies, meaning it’s tender and rather moreish; something of a snack, in fact. Originally from Chennai, South India, “and yes that is the correct name,” says Mo, the dish was invented as an appetizer in the Hotel Buhari, although, according to online sources, all sorts of fascinating myths surround the origin of the name. Scoop it up with a light golden nan glistening with herby garlic butter: you’ll soon be ordering another round.
There are beers, wines and soft drinks, of course, but for a unique alcohol-free treat, dairy fans should order the milky cinnamon-rich Masala Chai, which slowly simmers for hours, or the Falooda, a take on the traditional Pakistani dessert. “It is gorgeous,” says Mo. “Everyone must try this at least once. It’s a cold milk-based drink with rose syrup, sweet basil, and vermicelli noodles.”
You’re encouraged to eat with your hands: the witty and engaging menu includes a handy guide on how to do this successfully (not forgetting to wash those paws first, of course). And if you’re bamboozled by choice and not sure what to order, Mo has a simple piece of advice.
“Mix it up,” he says “Share it, go against the grain and try dishes you’ve never heard of.”
Babuji is at 343 Kentish Town Road NW5. For more info on the menu and what to order, head to the website here. Follow @BabujiUK on social.
Main image: Dimitra Sardi