Restaurant Reviews

Conquering Marrakesh with the Baboush's Condiment Kings

In late 2007, when Yaser Khalaf and Sam Benoikken opened Medina, a small Moroccan restaurant with a loungey, modern feel in Victory Park, they expected expansive condos, bustling shops and plenty of hungry diners walking past. But those expectations eventually withered. A faltered economy halted new construction, and the project only realized a small portion of its potential. They're still alive, with help from a great menu, but when I paid them a visit recently the restaurant lacked energy and animation.

Not so in the West Village, the bustling Uptown development finished in 2001, where shops and restaurants buzz and money is spent in fistfuls on weekends. Here, Khalaf and Benoikken saw the numbers of potential diners had already come to fruition; the pair just had to envision a dining room that would get those passersby off the sidewalk and in the door. They took their old Medina concept and spun it anew, this time focusing more on small, shareable plates. They named the restaurant Baboush and opened doors in August.

Opening any restaurant is a gamble, but the odds are better here, where a young clientele with discretionary income (or maybe just working credit cards) fills the apartments above and a network of bars and restaurants creates an environment that coax people to stay close to home. On a Saturday night the gamble pays off, and the owners are rewarded with a packed dining room, filled with the din of dining chatter and clanking silverware — a restaurant's version of the melodic tones of a casino floor. Their menu proves worthy of the crowds, too, loaded with dishes that stand up in a competitive neighborhood filled with restaurants.

On my first visit, I wandered in and ordered a pine-cardamom from the "sexy drinks" menu, and sucked it down at the semi-circle bar on the back wall. The cocktail made use of a vodka infused with cardamom and roasted pineapple, shaken into a vigorous froth over ice and garnished with a fire-engine red maraschino cherry. It's a bust, though — nowhere near as seductive as the menu suggests. That cherry was tacky, the cardamom lost, and drinks like this should be stirred gently to chill instead of shaken to oblivion.

But the dining room was a win, small and eclectic, with benches in leather and wicker and velvet, and tables in wood and brass and tile — small Chiclets in blue and cream that echoed the back wall.

On that cool and breezy evening, diners spilled out onto the sidewalk and wrestled their menus from the wind, chased napkins that wouldn't sit still and listened to a mashup of '80s pop and ethnic beats — REM meets Morocco, played in a loop. They were young and attractive, well-dressed and energetic, and they sat around tables grazing on shared plates and shared conversation.

Dips and spreads adorn a platter that works well for that sharing, and also serves as an introduction to a meal that unfolds like a journey. Hummus and babaganoush play it safe, the chickpeas bright with lemon in a smooth puree, the eggplant smoky with loud garlic. The Moroccan sweet tomato brings the unexpected, as sweet as jam. With intense tomato flavor, the spread is best tempered with a drizzle of the aioli that sits in the center of the platter.

That aioli, made on-site and itself hopped up with house-made harissa, proves to be Baboush's greatest tell. House-made condiments embellished with house-made condiments illuminate a kitchen with drive and ambition. Balanced flavors demonstrate that their work is not wasted.

Khalaf and Benoikken are more than mere restaurateurs. They're condiment professionals, and every dish that leaves the kitchen is served with a little something on the side — small porcelain cups so delightful that at times they outshine what's at the center of the plate.

It's what you'd expect from the duo that opened Ketchup this year. The burger joint, also in Uptown, doesn't use Heinz but instead fashions burger toppings and embellishments from scratch. Here at Baboush that attention to detail, combined with a menu that pinpoints Moroccan flavors, pays out big.

Shrimp kebabs delight, with crisp blackened tails and a mild tomato salad. Chicken kebabs sing, stained yellow with turmeric and served with a garlic spread so intense it deserves a warning label: Enjoy with caution, but only if your date does too. Beef is chewy and uninspired, but it comes with tzatziki, a thick and supple yogurt flavored with mint and cucumber. If only your local gyro came with a sauce this good — you'd lunch there daily. Each of the meat skewers is small but the flavors are mostly big. (But avoid kefta, which is bland and dry despite gentle cooking.)

A fatoush salad is misnamed. For what's commonly a bread-driven salad, the kitchen reduces the crispy shards of pita to a component of the dish, not the centerpiece. Still, crisp romaine, creamy feta and a lemony dressing all play well together, whatever the name.

The Tangier is a salad cliché or a classic, depending on your viewpoint. Pear and Gorgonzola dance on a stage of arugula and tomatoes in a combination that works well, even if the fruit's a little limp.

Street Plates close the menu with dishes that bend tradition, sometimes working and sometimes not. Falafel is packed with green and herbal flavors, adding cilantro and fava beans to traditional chickpeas and parsley. The flavors are there, but the texture's a no-show. The favas make for a soft and pasty puree, but that earthy tahini, hopped up with garlic and lemon, reduces the texture to an afterthought.

The dolma's texture is soft, too. Tomatoes added to the traditional mix of rice, herbs and nuts leave the stuffed grape leaves feeling a little limp.

Chicken and beef shawermas stay true to their roots, and for a menu that offers shared plates that skew small, they offer the most bang for your buck, perching the shaved meats on an ample portion of hummus.

You wouldn't likely find a spinach and goat cheese cigar on the streets of Marrakesh, but you might find a spinach pie. Baboush rolls up the phyllo dough like a crispy egg roll. Cut the cigar with your fork and knife and watch the creamy goat cheese ooze. The chicken pastila cigar gets a similar treatment, filling a phyllo tube with saffron-laden chicken, an aromatic aria, and finished with a dusting of cinnamon and powdered sugar. A sweet twist on savory that harkens dessert.

The simple but worthy encore offers three choices: a light and lemony sorbet, baklava and pistachio gelato. The gelato may be store-bought, but it doesn't disappoint. Served with a dusting of green pistachios it makes for a compelling close. And that plate of baklava stows an unexpected treat: a single date pitted and stuffed to the hilt with soft mascarpone cheese.

By now, amongst so many small plates, you're surely well versed in sharing. But just this once you should embrace your more sinister side. Pounce quickly and selfishly, and capture the prize all for yourself in one bite. Cutting the date renders the gem a mess.

They're all flavors you could find at Medina, but dining there, in the void of Victory Park, feels like shopping in an empty mall, even if the options are tailored and refined. With Baboush, Khalaf and Benoikken breathe new life into their Moroccan menu. The restaurant feels alive and busy — not quite the bustling insanity of the markets of Marrakesh, where you're as likely to find that earthy tahini as you are to have your pocket picked, but not far off, either.

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Scott Reitz
Contact: Scott Reitz