Hidden Gems

Babylon Cafe, Glasgow

I can eat pretty much any style of cuisine in my hometown nowadays. This has always been true, however in the past I often had to prepare it myself.

Glasgow from the seventies onwards to the birth of the current Millenium was, with the exception of a scattering of maverick pioneers, a gourmet wasteland. There were a few good men throughout these grim years; The Ubiquitous Chip, La Lanterna, La Bonne Auberge in Park Circus and One Devonshire, (for a time), were part of a valiant cartel of restaurateurs who held their heads and standards high.

Sharp contrast back to the times when the Malamaison Restaurant in the old Central Hotel led a formidable, talented and revered troupe of splendid kitchens and dining rooms. The original Ferrari – not the piss poor one that followed, 101, Ambassador, Guy’s (not me) and La Fourchette among names from the past deserving recognition and applause. Glasgow was a Mean City for some time, as far as dinner was concerned, like the staff canteen in Chernobyl.

Not now; an explosion of tastes, smells, textures, menus and venues have hit the ground running, and we’re spoilt for choice. Merchant City, Finnieston, the West End, East End, City Centre and even in the suburbs we are seduced with delights that once upon a time were rarer than an honest and decent politician.

There’s always some bell-end ordering chips, FFS

I love middle eastern cuisine. It’s fresh, vibrant and colourful, like a carnival in your mouth. I longed for my trips along London’s Edgware Road where I would gorge on Shawarma lamb and chicken sandwiches; flatbread barely containing a mound of grilled meat, salad, spicy chillies and homemade pickles all drenched in a mixture of garlic and hot sauces. Café Helen my favourite serving food fit for a sheik at peasant’s prices. If posh was required, Nopi in Soho would be the destination. Where the Middle East meets chic head on, Yotam Ottolenghi’s stunning diner is a must.

Nowadays, we have some very decent Middle Eastern choices in my hometown. Not like Nopi, but really tasty food in pleasant if simple surroundings.

Babylon Café, on the south side of the Clyde, is one of the new breed of restaurants where you will eat smooth humus, falafel, stuffed vine leaves, fatoush salad, tabbouleh, and baba ghanoush all served with the lightest, most delightful nan bread. There are other starters but these are my favourites and it is my blog. You should pick as many different dishes as you are able to cope with. Be a fat bastard, who cares for now? If dining solo and in for a quick bite I’ll have humus, tabbouleh and a mixed shawarma with extra chillies. If I’m sharing, the mixed grill plate has a little of everything; lamb & chicken shawarma, Adana (minced lamb) kebabs, chicken skewers, lamb ribs and chicken drumsticks. All sizzling hot off the grill. Get some of the chicken joojeh kebab, deliciously moist. There’s always some bell-end ordering chips, FFS, but hey they’re not bad, had worse. Babylon is a mixture of Turkish and Persian cooking so there are various stews as well, however for me it’s the meat from the grill which takes star prize.

I have never left room for any of the syrup soaked filo pastry sweets, which is a pity because they look so good.

Turkish tea is a normally taken at the end of a meal but I like to drink it throughout along with the very refreshing non alcoholic malt beverage Barbican. They don’t serve swally so you’ll just have to wait until you leave and get to the pub. I have never asked, but I presume that BYOB is not an option for cultural reasons.

Cheap as chips, friendly staff, simple delectable grills with some of the best breads in towns, what’s not to like?

Carmen Cucinas, McChuills Bar, Glasgow.

There’s always been part of me that wanted to be a pirate. I’ve wondered for some time what devilish delights lay inside McChuills bar on High Street, the giant Jolly Roger fluttering outside like a personal invitation, trying to lure me inside. Now I know,

McChuills is a great bar, a cavernous space beneath arches with painted brickwork, a fab buzz and speakers everywhere. If you’re not a music fan, I’m not talking Spice Girls, then you’re in the wrong place. I can’t recall hearing a better soundtrack in a bar for a long time. I’ve possibly got this wrong but I think the boss is called Nick and he was responsible for the playlist during our visit. Hats off to you sir. Much as we loved the sounds, we are here because Sarah our nut-nibbling vegan, has been told by her hairdresser who works next door, (she deserves a medal), that in the dark recesses beyond the bar we will find Carmen. A chatty, Jesus she can talk, Italian woman who is rattling the pans and serving up some damn fine dishes.

We are greeted by her son, just as chatty – they must empty the amphetamine bottle before work every morning. He’s hilarious, like a one man floor show. After his dramatic and colourful description of  the specials, his mamma joins in to be sure, to be sure.

It would have been sinful not to have had the excellent focaccia and baked pasta dish special which was a deliciously gooey mound of penne, cheese and chicken. This is not the type of dish I’m in the habit of ordering but I was delighted it was in the centre of the table for sharing. Sharing? Perhaps the concept of sharing was lost on our herbivorous chum, I think she got all the chicken. I feel somewhat guilty because she’s been lead down this devilish path of carnivorous desire but, you can lead a horse to water and all that shit. The pasta bake, I’ve forgotten the sexy Italian name - oops, we all agreed was scrumptious comfort food and a perfect supper dish to be scoffed in front of a roaring fire whilst watching Goodfellas.

Also ordered was the antipasti plate to share, just in case the bread and pasta weren’t enough to get us started. Well, we were honoured to have Margaret;  Glasgow Girl @GlasgowMonday blog fame join us on this visit, didn’t want her going home hungry and talking about us. The meats, cheese and olives vanished as quickly as they appeared on the grey slate serving dish. I was disappointed, only slightly, that the mozzarella was not from a lady buffalo.

Glasgow Girl asked for a salmon salad, that’s exactly what she got. “I only wanted rocket” says she. “Well you should have said so” I gleefully retorted. Fuck me, If looks could kill. She assured us, once the petted lip disappeared, I’m such a tease I know, that her fish was moist and appetising. I had linguine, special order, with Pietro’s Italian sausage on the side of a very palatable chicken Milanese. Sarah, in deference to her dietary posture, passed on the breaded chicken and made do with the superb sausage linguine too.  Clair had the Puttanesca, I’m not going to say if the cap fits, which she rattled through; it was packed with anchovies, capers, tomatoes and olives. Just as well she let us know because the art of sharing at this stage had been put to rest.

We were all at bursting point and adamant that dessert was not an option. That was until Carmen appeared and coerced us into sharing, that concept again, a pudding made with Pandoro cake, strawberries, raspberries and cream laced with Amaretto. It was superb. This cake is a specialty from Verona and is traditionally star shaped with a bright yellow colour. It was so light we almost ordered seconds. I was in a food coma after the cake, I cannot recall drinking coffee.

We agreed that yes we would return in a shot

We hugged and kissed Carmen and her boy, “ I’ve studied drama”, and left stuffed to the gills.

We agreed that yes we would return in a shot. This is not elegant dining, rather home style Italian food, “justa like a mamma used to make.” Most definitely worth a visit; loud music, spaghetti and chat from this mother and son double act guarantee you’ll leave happy.

Ciao e Grazie Bello.