Photography by Carissa Byers
Baboush is yet another attempt at applying precious haute gauze to the decidedly downscale tapas/street food genre. Highly coifed lounges featuring little plates offer the promise of exotic bites and tastes with street cred at reasonable prices. Baboush injects this formula with a Marrakesh lilt. Does it succeed? Absolutely—with reservations.
Take the bar. Cocktails often come with sultry monikers and trace ingredients reflecting its North African/Middle East pedigree. Maybe that’s why the list is titled “Sexy Drinks.” Examples: Lebanese Nights (vodka, guava nectar, fresh strawberry and lime juice) and Blackberry Seduction (rum, blackberries, lime and mint). The martini list mercifully dispenses with fruiti-tini junk in favor of cultural hat tips: Casablanca mint tea (vodka, green tea, mint, orange blossom water and lemon) and The Turkish (vodka, Turkish coffee, Bailey’s and Frangelico) for example.
Founders Yaser Khalaf and Sam Benoikken, the same pair who launched Medina Oven & Bar, think of Baboush as a 21st century reanimation of Rick’s Bar in Casablanca. They think of themselves as the Humphrey Bogart characters. Yet, it’s hard to imagine Bogart drinking—or Rick’s Bar serving—vodka martinis (Bogart was said to favor bathtub gin—not very haute or urbane). No, Baboush seems more concerned with fashion statements forged from its dusty exotica roots.
Suspended under an awning over a strip of sidewalk seating is a row of meticulously crafted lanterns: red, amber, silver. It’s a great vantage point from which to ogle the exquisitely primed and primped West Village pilgrims and denizens—and their dogs. The legs, the shoes, the fitted jackets, the designer jeans, the toned sinews. Watch and fork a Tangier salad—a refreshing mix of arugula, Gorgonzola and pine nuts lightly washed in blood orange vinaigrette. Or a small bowl of fluffy basmati rice steamed with saffron and pebbled with raisins and toasted almond slices.
The Baboush sensuality quotient really bustles inside this intimate, heavily accessorized lounge space. Bar stools crowned in cushy leather of bright red, yellow and blue hug a sickle-shaped bar clad in aquamarine tiles. Rust sconces riddled with punctures hug terra-cotta walls. Intricate lanterns plunge from the high ceiling.
Add to this milieu plush fabrics that drop over the walls seemingly from the sheer weight of their opulence, and ottomans that flaunt saturated colors and conform to the slope of a floating banquette in the center of the room. Tables of wood, brass and mosaic tiles fill the remaining space. Much of this space garb was flown in directly from Morocco.
The food almost serves as another set of baubles. Smooth babaganoush (eggplant spread) is topped with ruby-like pomegranate seeds. Moroccan sweet tomato spread unleashes a heady perfume of cinnamon and orange. Hummus, heavily laced with lemon to duke with the garlic for palate tingle supremacy, is among the best we’ve ever spread, dipped or finger-licked. Dip and spread each on the fluffy, warm and chewy pita bread. Or just reserve it for the lebna cheese and harissa (Tunisian hot chili sauce) aioli. You can nibble on Greek-style dried black olives and cracked green olives marinated in harissa with preserved lemon. Florets of cauliflower, pickled in cinnamon and saffron, add a subtle sensual counterpoint to the piquant olive brine. Baboush takes its name from a small street market in Marrakesh, one specializing in colorful, handmade soft leather slippers. To that end, Baboush serves up street plates, grub ostensibly served in this slipper market.
There’s kibeh (ground lamb and wheat bulgur), mergueze (grilled fennel-ized lamb sausage drizzled with harissa sauce) and falafel (seasoned fava bean and chick pea patties). Beef shawarma, marinated and spiced beef interlaced with onion and pickle slivers, is scattered over an oval smear of hummus that looks like a tortilla at first glance. Though the beef is fragrant and flavorful, it is cooked into leathery doneness. It is also cold.
An absence of heat (the thermal kind) plagues much of this street food. Though delicious, shrimp kebabs marinated in dry spices with a lively tomato shermoula (oil, lemon juice, garlic, cumin and salt) had the warmth of the by-the-bucket, peel-n-eat variety. You could get hints of how delicious the lamb kebobs would be, too, if they had been just plucked from the grill.
Dolmas—those classic, addictive grape leaf rolls of rice, roasted tomato, parsley and lemon—were an outage on our first visit. Odd, as the dining room was nearly empty. But we got to them on a second sweep—well worth the revisit. Five wraps neatly stacked in a crisscross pattern next to a tomato cucumber salad were exquisite: tender, chewy grape leaf sheath, perfectly cooked rice, nice citrus tang on the finish.
As is fitting for a chic grazing lounge, the Baboush wine list is a single brief sheet of eclectic bottlings from virtually every continent. The most unusual offerings come from Africa and Asia. The Zniber Vineyards 2010 “Amazigh” Beni M’Tir (Morocco), a blend of carignan, cinsault and Alicante, is an exotic full-bodied red, with lots of black pepper and hints of tobacco, fig and spice. Or try the Massaya “Silver Selection,” a red blend of cinsault, Grenache, cabernet sauvignon and Mourvèdre. From the heart of the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, it’s a lush weave of black fruit with hints of toast. Both these wines have a sturdy spice component that stands up well to the beef and lamb dishes.
For dessert, pair the mini baklava with Turkish coffee. The tiny triangles—tucked in a partitioned plate—are flaky and rich.
Baboush drawbacks? The street food chill comes with a service protocol that is slightly out of sync. Servers are only sporadically attentive, even when traffic is light. Requests for wine and pita bread refills went unheeded until we were ready for the check. Save for basic service perfunctoriness, the staff seemed un-tuned to the diners at the tables.
But don’t let these miscues sway you from the worthy string of Baboush charms.
3636 McKinney Ave., Ste. 160
Sidewalk seating along City Place Boulevard, weather permitting
What to Notice
The varied assortment of intricate Moroccan lanterns
The sultry, curvaceous aquamarine bar with its vividly colored, cushy bar stools and slate of “Sexy Drinks”