Babalou

Babalou

4 Rue Lamarck, Montmartre,

Paris, France 75018

http://restaurantbabalou.fr/en

I was in Paris, France recently with my wife and our son – my first time since I was thirteen – and our second meal of the trip was at Babalou, a quaint restaurant around the bend from L’Eglise Sacre Coeur and away from the hustle and bustle of the centre of Montmartre. Babalou was a chance find but what a find it was!

We didn’t really have any idea where we should eat. We knew we wanted to visit Montmartre. (As a writer, I had allusions that I might have an Owen Wilson experience a la Midnight In Paris but, alas, no such luck.) So, after a day that included visiting The Louvre, The Eiffel Tower and riding the Batobus, we returned to our apartment hotel, showered and headed out to eat. Like I said, we had no idea where to venture so my wife just did a search on her phone and Babalou was the first in a list of Montmartre eateries. We’re goofy people and the name Babalou just called out to us so we decided that’s where we’d, at least, start. If it didn’t look like fun or a delicious gastronomic experience, we’d move on and try somewhere else.

Without a car and uncertain, at the time, how to get to the closest Metro from our hotel, we ordered an Uber and got there in about fifteen minutes. (Our hotel is in the eighth arrondissement, close to Champs d’Elysees, and Babalou is in the eighteenth.) Across the street is an apartment building that reminded me of a block of flats in Hong Kong. In fact, this entire part of Montmartre, on the hill, a concrete wall and block of flats across from the restaurant, and a narrow street brought back memories of visiting my late friend, Ravi, on Conduit Road in The Mid-Levels of Hong Kong.

Our plan to move on to somewhere different if Babalou didn’t look any good was instantly negated. Babalou is far from other eateries and has chosen its location well. It’s away from the downtown area of Montmartre so, unless we chose to walk several blocks or order another Uber, we were stuck with Babalou and I’m glad for that. Being in Paris, a city known for the deliciousness of its food, whether its somewhere five-star like Maxim’s or somewhere cozy and more Mom-and-Pop, Babalou stood up and held its own. In fact, it did better than that. To me, it sets a standard – in taste, in style, in atmosphere, in charm.

Opened and run by two friends, Emmanuel Michel and Federico Colombo, the chef, and managed with the assistance of Michel’s mother, Babalou is like walking into someone’s living room and being offered a meal you won’t soon forget. If ever. The restaurant is decorated with secondhand and discarded items. It’s a quaint place where nothing matches. Michel admitted to us that some of the chairs and tables were taken off curbs, discarded by their former owners. There are old lampshades, being used the way lampshades are supposed to be used, but hung upside from the ceiling light fixtures.

There are shelves of books and LPs (next time I go there, I’m bringing a copy of my novel to add to Michel’s collection) around the room and an old typewriter  in a corner, which I did covet – the typewriter, not the corner. The unique style goes to food-related items as well. The salt and pepper, balsamic and olive oil came in large test tubes that stood up in a metal rack. The balsamic and olive oil were capped with spritz tops, which I found to be utterly clever. This allows the diner to apply just the right amounts of each so as not to use too much and either ruin the taste of their food or go beyond any personal dietary restrictions.

The salt and pepper test tubes were capped with an actual bung, which made offered the illusion that we were in some mad scientist’s domain. And, who knows? With the creativity in Chef Colombo’s food, perhaps we were.

Anyway, back to the food. Dining Babalou is like walking into your friend’s house and his mother says you get pizza or pizza. And that’s okay because it’s, quite possibly, going to be one of the best pizza you’ll ever taste.

Yes, Babalou serves pizza, which I found ironic being we were in Paris – a city known for its culinary tradition – but when I found out that Michel is half Italian it made perfect sense. (While Michel is half French and half Italian, and he proudly says so, he will be quick to remind you that he is, however, full Parisian.) His mother, from whom he gets his Italian half, helps manage the restaurant; waiting and busing tables, seating patrons, making Café au Lait, Espresso, and Cappucino. She, no doubt, helps prepare the pizza ingredients in the kitchen.

The menu includes salads and antipasto as starters and there is a small dessert menu with Tiramisu, Panacotta, Baba au Rhum (cake soaked in rum) and a Nutella Calzone but their main offering is pizza. Babalou does have a pasta offering but it’s ravioli topped with the sauce of the day. As for the pizza, there are some standard ones on their menu like Four Cheese, Margherita, and Salami but they also have a Daily Specials Menu written by hand on a small tray-sized chalkboard. Whatever kind you order, you get a large, which is about a foot in diameter, or a small. The small, however, isn’t a round individual pizza. It’s half of the large (meaning it’s like taking a whole or large, cutting it down the middle and serving that) and comes, no matter what, with a salad. The salad, which you can choose from the salad offerings in the menu, fills the other half of the plate.

As much as the quality of the food is crucial to an eatery’s reputation, the personality of the proprietor and those who work there are equally important. Michel is much like his place. He is charming and pleasant and, while I was anxious but intimidated on having to rely on my four years of French study in secondary school, I was eager to practice speaking it. Alas, thanks to Michel’s stellar English, my lessons under Miss Emery, Miss Geddes, Monsieur Couderc, and Mister Safranek weren’t needed.

As for what we ate, I had the Speck,

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Speck Pizza and Caprese Salad

 a four-cheese pizza with jambon and mushroom, and a Caprese salad. The tomatoes in the salad were some of the juiciest and sweetest I’ve ever tasted. Moreover, they weren’t acidic. I don’t know if tomatoes are in season this time of year in France – I suspect they’re not – but, either way, they were delicious. The flavours in my pizza were balanced, too. None of the flavours – the cheeses, the ham or mushroom – overpowered the others. With ham and cheese, you might also expect the pizza to ooze with grease. At Babalou, the pizza doesn’t.

My son ordered a small Four Cheese, which came with a roquette (arugula) salad.

 He enjoys the ‘white pie’ here in the U.S. and he is a picky eater so we decided that Babalou’s Four Cheese would be his safest choice. He enjoyed it enough but found the cheese combination to be a little sharp for his taste. Kids can be finicky but he didn’t love his pizza; that is, until I gave him some of the jambon that came with my Speck and he ate it with his pie. My wife ordered a pie off the night’s Specials Menu, Tartufi,

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Tartufi Pizza

which was topped with artichoke, mushrooms, cherry tomatoes and an olive tapenade. It was an interesting and well-matched blend of flavours. The artichokes were lightly browned, the mushrooms remained juicy, and the olive tapenade added a subtle undercurrent that brought the ingredients together. The cherry tomatoes were sweet and sliced in half and spread over the pizza.

 

My son ordered a small Four Cheese, which came with a roquette (arugula) salad.

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Four Cheese Pizza and Roquette Salad

 He enjoys the ‘white pie’ here in the U.S. and he is a picky eater so we decided that Babalou’s Four Cheese would be his safest choice. He enjoyed it enough but found the cheese combination to be a little sharp for his taste. Kids can be finicky but he didn’t love his pizza; that is, until I gave him some of the jambon that came with my Speck and he ate it with his pie. My wife ordered a pie off the night’s Specials Menu, Tartufi,  which was topped with artichoke, mushrooms, cherry tomatoes and an olive tapenade. It was an interesting and well-matched blend of flavours. The artichokes were lightly browned, the mushrooms remained juicy, and the olive tapenade added a subtle undercurrent that brought the ingredients together. The cherry tomatoes were sweet and sliced in half and spread over the pizza.

For dessert, I had Babalou’s Tiramisu. When Michel mentioned it, it was a given that I would order it. Tiramisu, like New England Clam Chowder (click here for a review of the NECCs I’ve tried on Montauk) and Monte Cristo (the best I’ve ever had is the one from the Holiday Inn coffee shop in Hong Kong, circa 1978) is something for which I am on a quest to find the best; the version that after I have it I can’t – physically, emotionally, psychologically, logically, morally – have any other one again. Unfortunately, while tasty, the Tiramisu at Babalou was good but not better than any I’ve had at other restaurants. My wife, however, ordered the Panacotta aux Fruits Rouges (Panacotta with berries)

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Panacotta aux fruits rogues

 and she loved it. It was a clean Panacotta, smooth and not overly sweet, and was served with a nicely tart raspberry sauce. As my wife put it, it was the best she’s ever had and “the way Panacotta should be.” Our son, a chocoholic at nine, had the Nutella Calzone; a Nutella filled pastry made of pizza dough that is a twist on a more common Nutella-filled crepe.

So, while one or two items didn’t make go us gaga, everything we ate at Babalou was delicious and I wouldn’t hesitate to order any of the same dishes again. Babalou was an excellent discovery for us and, in this foodie’s opinion, somewhere you have to go to when you’re in Paris. The food is excellent, the atmosphere eclectically cozy, and the host charming. If you do go, please pass this message on to Emmanuel Michel: “Merci mon ami. Quand je reviens à Paris, je vais certainement vous rendre visite. Bon appetit.”

Rating: 1 1/2 bites

0 bites = Don’t bother. I suffered for you.
1/2 bite = I enjoyed it enough – I had to eat something, after all – but I wouldn’t recommend it.
1 bite = Good. I’d have it again but I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to get it.
1 1/2 bites = Very good/super tasty. I’m definitely going back and I’m bringing friends. If I weren’t married, it’s somewhere I’d take a first date to. That’s how good it is.
2 bites = Unique, I’ve never had (and probably won’t ever have) better than this, this is what I want if I were going to be executed and I could have whatever I wanted for my last meal, Epicurean Orgasm!

 

 

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Spaghetti Longanisa

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Ingredients

Spaghetti* (about 1 cup cooked)

3-4 cloves of chopped garlic

2 Tablespoons of Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1-2 cooked, Sweet* Longanisa (Filipino sausage)

*Other varieties of pasta and longanisa can be used. I like sweet longanisa over hot so I’ll use sweet. My wife, meanwhile, who enjoys spicy things might choose the hot.

Method

1. Cook the spaghetti the usual way (boil water, add the pasta, cook for seven minutes, drain)

2. Sautee the chopped garlic in the olive oil until it just starts to turn brownish from its original yellow

3. Toss the spaghetti into the garlic and olive oil and mix

4. Chop/mash the longanisa and toss it with the spaghetti.

5. Add grated cheese of your choice to your taste.

A Simple Delight

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This probably isn’t anything that special or worth writing about but I am going to write about it because this is my blog, after all. Ha ha!

Seriously, though, I just whipped up something that both my wife and I really liked but I’m not sure what I want to call it. Below is a list of names that popped into my head and I’m leaning towards Banagbanag but I am open to suggestions. So. If you have any ideas, leave a comment.

– John’s Pasta
– Fathers’ Pasta
– The Rader
– SpaghettiWurst
– Banagbanag
– Banny’s Treat

To give you a little idea of how this dish came about and how I came up with the name ideas, here’s what happened: My wife cooked some thin spaghetti and made dinner for herself and our son. I was busy doing something else so I didn’t join them. When I did go to eat, I saw the left over pasta (about a cup or cup and a half’s worth) and pursed my lips to the side of my face. My wife then challenged me to do something with it. So, my culinary mind kicked in and something new and something my wife wants me to make again was created. I doubt that I’m the very first person to throw these ingredients together – thin spaghetti, crushed garlic, extra virgin olive oil, and liverwurst – but, either way, we liked it and, if I had my own restaurant, it’d be making its way onto the menu.

John Rader was my grandfather. He’s been dead for many years and, sadly, I never met him but it’s from his side of the family that I get my German blood. With the liverwurst in my dish, that’s why I’m toying with the names John’s Pasta, The Rader, and SpaghettiWurst. However, and if I can put modesty aside, I got my talent for whipping up tasty eats from random ingredients in my cupboards and fridge from my dad. As a result of that and the German connection courtesy of my grandfather, I’ve come up with the name Fathers’ Pasta; inspiration from my father and my mother’s father. Lastly, there’s Banangbanag and Banny’s Treat. Banagbanag is my dad’s name; his middle name, I think and Banny is the nickname for that and what his cousins call him. In addition to being the spirit behind my ability to cook off the top of my head, my dad also loves liver and liverwurst. Because of health reasons, he enjoys it less than he used to but it was through him that I grew to love liverwurst and pâ·té de foie gras.

So, if you have any name suggestions, let me know. And, moreover if you try it (click here for the recipe), do let me know what you think.

Thanks for stopping by. Mabuting gana!

Serafina

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Serafina
210 West 55th
New York, New York

For many of you reading, you’re probably out and about more than I am (I’m a self-proclaimed homebody but I do enjoy getting out once in a while) so you may already know about the wonder that is Serafina in New York City. Located on the upper edge of the theatre district, Serafina is a casual Italian restaurant that offers a mellow atmosphere with quick and friendly service, perfect for a pre-show meal.

I was in the city with my wife for a matinee of Matthew Bourne’s original adaptation of Sleeping Beauty at City Center and we wanted to grab lunch before the 1:30pm curtain. On the way there, on the NJ Transit, we looked up nearby restaurants and Serafina grabbed our gastronomic attention. We called to make a reservation but, since it was early on a Sunday and we were only a party for two, we were told that a reservation wasn’t needed. So, upon getting off the train, we transferred onto the 1 and ventured uptown from Penn Station.

Getting there at about noon, we had our choice of regular menu options and their Sunday brunch. We didn’t opt for the brunch, although the Poached Eggs with spinach and prosciutto, Pancakes with strawberries, maple syrup and Nutella, and the Three Salmon Benedict did tempt us. We did, though, enjoy a Mimosa (me) and a Bellini (my wife). For our meal, we passed on starters, not because nothing sounded good, but because we were pressed for time. On a future visit, I promise to try either the il Sashimi Di Tonno (finely sliced sushi-grade tuna and avocado, served with their special dipping sauce) or the Il Tartare Di Serafina (tuna and salmon, served with a touch of peanut oil). Instead, what we had were the Jumbo Shrimp Al Cognac (jumbo shrimp sautéed in cognac, served with saffron rice) (pictured above) and Spaghetti All’aragosta (spaghetti with a half lobster in a spicy tomato sauce). Yes, folks, you did just read “half lobster.”

Both dishes were sublime. With the Jumbo Shrimp Al Cognac, they weren’t lying. The shrimp were large, about 2″ to 2 12″ through the centre of their curved ends and the straight tall was another inch or more. Additionally, the shrimp weren’t skinny by any means, offering generous amounts of meat throughout each bite. The cognac sauce was thick, without being starchy, and blended nicely with the saffron rice which, in turn, had a stickiness to it that gave it a risotto quality. Naturally, the saffron gave a nice kick, without being overwhelming, but there was an additional kind of spicy taste – lemongrass, perhaps – that pulled all the flavours together. I may be wrong in suggesting lemongrass but whatever it is the chefs put in this dish, keep doing it.

With my wife’s dish, the Spaghetti All’aragosta, the tomato sauce was spicy, this time I think with a cilantro dominance, but again, not overwhelming. It neither drowned the taste of the fresh tomatoes nor did it burn our palates in a way that would prevent us from tasting anything else. The spaghetti itself was a little stiff for my taste but not to the point of ruining the dish. And, this could even have been a one off. The generosity of the lobster, however, as much as the balance of the flavours was remarkable. In similar dishes in other restaurants, the lobster is typically finely broken up or chopped. It might even be blended into the sauce. Here, it’s not hidden and it is truly a half lobster with chunks of meat from the claws in the sauce and draped over the pasta. It made me think of a traditional Spaghetti with Meatballs dish but instead of meatballs we got chunks of lobster. And, because the lobster comes the way it does, the dish allows the person eating it the choice of how he or she wants to enjoy the shellfish – eating it as chunks or breaking it up into small pieces him or herself.

For afters, my wife and I shared a Tiramisu. It was good, nothing exceptional or unique from others I’ve had but the important thing is that I wasn’t disappointed by it or longing for another establishment’s version. There are other offerings on their dessert menu but, being a Tiramisu aficionado, searching for the perfect one, we went with this traditional Italian treat. Next time, I’ll give Le Crepes Alla Gelato Nutella (crepes served with grand marnier, a touch of tangerine, vanilla ice cream and raspberry) or the Nutella soufflé, Il Soufflé Di Cioccolato Allo Nutella.

The only thing that was a negative, if I can even call it that, about our experience at Serafina was the close proximity of the tables. Being we were just two, we got seated in one of those two-person tables where one side is against a wall and the seats are like a bench and the facing person is in a chair. Granted, it was relatively early and not crowded and we were seated immediately next to two former college roommates, one of whom was visiting New York for work, but I could hear every word of their conversation and it wasn’t like they were talking loudly. That’s how close we were. As a writer, though, I’ll confess that I eavesdropped a little to see if there was anything in their conversation I could use in a future novel.

Other than this, although table proximity is hardly a detractor if the food is good and it’s something New Yorkers are used to and accept anyway, I highly recommend Serafina. It’s a place you can go for a full meal, and not feel like you were overcharged and under served, for drinks (yes, it has it’s own bar) after a show, or for a happy hour cocktail before your evening’s main event. It’s a place where you can take your spouse of significant other and a place where you can take that special someone on a first or second date without looking like you’re trying too hard and without breaking the bank. More than that, it’s a place where the food is good and the atmosphere easy. If you go, I promise you won’t be disappointed.