Thursday, January 26, 2012

Imagine That a Menu…

posted on a restaurant’s window is a magnet. Then imagine that I am wearing a full metal jacket. Immediate attraction. I can’t resist. So on our way to the truck after our visit to Moldaner’s Camera Shop, I was drawn to the menu posted on the window of the Babylon Café. I only had a few minutes but saw enough to know that the café offered a long and interesting list of appetizers many of which were new to me.

So later that afternoon I studied Babylon’s menu on line and immediately announced to Chuck: “We will eat here.” And so a few days later we found ourselves back on Maple Street in the Uptown section of New Orleans for an early lunch.

“Babylon Cafe's menu is as well turned out as anybody's, at as attractive a price. But what makes it stand out is its house-baked bread. It's like a fat pita, or a pizza without toppings. The round loaves come out hot, adding extra excitement to everything from a shawarma sandwich to a salad…

“The platters here are oversize portions of well-made kebabs, grilled lamb, chicken or beef shawarma, and all the rest of what you go to a Middle Eastern restaurant to enjoy. The better part of a page of the menu is filled with appetizers, enough of them to make a complete meal, particularly with a table of four or more…

“Babylon Café began in the most spartan of locations on Canal Street in the 1990s. When owner Najah Alsherees moved it in 2001 to the much larger, nicer Maple Street restaurant row, it extended its offerings and offered more creature comforts…. Most of the tables are in a large, attractive dining room with one curiosity: if you pull back the curtains from the windows on the left-hand wall, you'll gaze into a busy, unassociated laundromat. So don't do that” (Tom Fitzmorris at

The café is just a large almost square room decorated with a couple of murals. The curtains have been replaced and the windows are now painted with Medi-terranean scenes. We were seated next to one whose color was predominately red which has cast a pinkish tone to most of the food photos.

As I said, it was the appetizers that caught my attention. Among the choices not selected were: a sampler plate with hummus, baba ganuj, labneh, tabouleh, two falafel, and two vegetarian grape leaves; Baba Ganuj—roasted eggplant blended with tahini, lemon juice and garlic; Labneh—thick Lebanese yogurt topped with olive oil and dried mint; Stuffed Grape Leaves—made in-house and stuffed with rice, ground meat, and vegetables; Vegetarian Grape Leaves stuffed with rice, cracked wheat, and vegetables; Spinach Artichoke Dip served with homemade bread; Spinach Philo (spanakopita)—Greek philo dough stuffed with spinach, feta, and ricotta cheese; Kibbeh—cracked wheat stuffed with seasoned ground beef, onions and pine nuts and served with a side of labneh.

There was also an item called Ful Madammus, which is “a kind of dried fava bean stew…considered by many to be Egypt’s national dish. There is an Arabic saying about this dish: ‘The rich man's breakfast, the shopkeeper's lunch, the poor man's supper’ which illustrates just how popular a dish this is. Once cooked it can be eaten plain, but is also eaten accompanied by all sorts of things such as vegetable oil, butter, buffalo milk, fried eggs, tahini or lime juice amongst other ingredients” (recipes4us. Babylon’s version consisted of mashed fava beans with tomato, red onion, garlic, lemon juice, and olive oil.

Chuck’s order started with a cup of lentil soup which was made with red lentils, parsley, and
“spices” which was a tasty not-quite smooth puree. I appreciated that some texture remained.

Then we moved to a shared order of hummus that was described on the menu as a “Family recipe of blended chick peas, tahini, lemon juice, and roasted garlic all made from scratch.” With the hummus came a basket of pitas and some of the café’s magnificent homemade bread. The pitas which are also made in-house were fluffier than grocery store pitas and were nice and chewy. Dare I describe them as “puffy pillows of pita perfection?” And the bread is a favorite of on-line reviewers many of whom eschew the pita in favor of the bread.

The hummus—attractively presented—was an immense portion and was ultra smooth. But it seemed to be lacking something. We tried salt and that didn’t do much. We thought it needed more lemon. (Imagine me saying something needed more acidity.) Later, I read a review by Frankie W. on stating “it reminds me of the Middle Eastern hummus I had while in that part of the world... and, just the same, it only really tastes right after you mix a bunch of olive oil (a bottle is always on your table) in with it.” Maybe that was lacking.

Chuck decided to order the Gyro Plate which came with a choice of two sides—salad, hummus, or basmati rice—and either pita or bread. The gyro meat came in semi-thick slices—not the more standard shaved slices—that had been quickly heated on a flattop with onions and tomatoes which intensified the flavors of the spices and garlic. I asked our server if the meat was prepared in-house and she told me no. This is one of the few items that they don’t prepare themselves but they ordered it from a halal processor in, she believed, Georgia. (“In Arabic, the word halal means permitted or lawful. Halal foods are foods that are allowed under Islamic dietary guidelines” []).

I embarked on an appetizer frenzy starting with an order of chickpea falafel. For some reason, I prefer my falafel to be served as little balls instead of patties (Don’t ask me why. I really don’t have an answer. It is just one of my many eccentricities.) and was pleased to learn that Babylon’s were the former. The chickpeas aren’t cooked. Just soaked in baking soda before being ground with other ingredients. Here the other predominant ingredient seemed to be parsley. The balls are fried and become ultra crunchy. The falafel came with a small cup of sesame tahini for dipping.

Then came my order of Zaater Bread. Zaater “is a generic name for a family of related Middle Eastern herbs…It is also the name for a condiment made from the dried herb(s), mixed with sesame seeds, dried sumac, and often salt, as well as other spices. Used in Arab cuisine, both the herb and spice mixture are popular throughout the Middle East” (wikipedia. com).
“(S)umac…is extracted from the berries of a flowering bush that grows wild in the Mediterranean region…and is commonly added to many Medi-terranean dishes for its lemony flavor” ( Babylon’s version was a pita spread with a mix of oregano, sesame seeds, and sumac combined with olive oil. While the taste of the sumac was described at as lemony, I thought it tasted more like rosemary infused with pine needles. I gave Chuck one of my wedges and sensed that he was far less enthusiastic than I was. I loved it.

My last choice was the Safeiheh or mini-pizza which was a pita spread with ground lamb and beef with tomatoes and spices. This didn’t really work for me and was my least favorite of all our choices. I thought it was quite dry (thank heaven for the accompanying sour cream) and had a “gamey” taste of overcooked lamb.

So did we manage to eat all of this food? Yes, eventually. Three small to-go containers accompanied us home and were eaten for dinner that night.

While there was one miss (the Safeiheh) and one near miss (the hummus) that seems easily correctable, but we enjoyed our lunch enough (especially the gyro meat) to give Babylon Café 4.0 Addies.

No comments: