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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A Forgotten Treasure – Tuptim Thai Cuisine

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Picture courtesy of Manoavino.com

The last time I ate at Tuptim Thai Cuisine, in Montclair, NJ, was when I completed my graduate studies in 2006. It wasn’t graduation day (that was held at The Meadowlands). Rather, it was the Graduate School Convocation which was held in the amphitheater at Montclair State University.

I had the opportunity to eat there again last Sunday. My wife had some lululemon (it’s all she wears; she’s a former professional ballerina and now she’s a pilates, Gyrotonic© and dance instructor) gift cards that her clients had given her for Christmas. Afraid that she’d be want for sizes or styles if she waited for another shopping opportunity, we decided to hit the new lululemon store in Montclair.

By the time she’d finished shopping, the sun had settled, drivers had turned on their headlights and my wife and I were famished. Thai food has also been on our minds, thanks to some new friends we’ve made – parents of one of our son’s classmates in kindergarten – because the father is Thai-American. Incidentally, the wife is Vietnamese-American. Between the four of us, we’ve spoken about where the good Asian food spots are. By good, I mean authentic and by that I mean the kind of Thai places Thai people would go to, the kind of Filipino spots my fellow Pinoys would hit, the dim sum restaurants I and my fellow Hong Kong-raised foodies would frequent and so on.

Montclair has two such spots when it comes to Thai. There is Thai Chef and Tuptim, both of which are located on Bloomfield Avenue. Thai Chef, at least by the virtue of the sturdy silverware and the thick snow white table clothes and the shiny brass statues of Buddha, appears to be the more chichi of the two eateries. Thai Chef also proudly hangs a picture of the queen of Thailand on one of its walls and signage that boasts it as the queen’s choice of Thai restaurant in the entire United States. Apparently, she goes there whenever she’s in America. I’ve eaten there on several occasions and the food is flawless but I prefer Tuptim over the queen’s choice.

In sharp contrast to Thai Chef’s glamour, Tuptim’s tables are covered in colourfully woven table cloths; the kind a tourist might pick up from the inexpensive street hagglers as gifts when returning home to America or Europe. The furniture is wood, and dark wood to boot, that gives Tuptim a rural feel. There’s something ‘peasantish’ about Tuptim’s ambience that enhances the enjoyment of the food. Bear in mind, however, that in its ‘peasantness’ it doesn’t lack sophistication. It also reminds me of the humbler spots I grew up enjoying in Hong Kong and Manila.

With regard to the food, and that’s what we’re really interested in, Tuptim’s chef has mastered balance – in flavour, quantity, and texture. We ordered a whole flounder, fried and flavoured with their garlic chili sauce, Paad Thai shrimp, and Thai barbecued chicken for our son, who is the Mac ‘n Cheese-Chicken Nuggets-Waffles Champion. And for dessert, we had the Fried Banana. For starters, we had a simple Goong Satay (shrimp barbecue). 

Let me start with the chicken. Like I said, my son is a picky eater. Outside of what I listed in the paragraph above, the most he’s ventured to Asian cuisine is char shiu (roast pork) which he calls ‘Chinese chicken.’ So, when we ordered the Thai chicken, I asked if it were spicy (it’s not) and we ordered it because it seemed like the most generic thing on the menu that he might eat and, actually, enjoy. The pieces were largely from the chicken’s white parts but they came to the table well seasoned, without being overwhelming, and without being dry. Our son ate quite a lot of it before he got full. So, if you’re a parent and your kids are a little picky, Tuptim does have something for your little ones while you enjoy the richer dishes.

As for the Paad Thai and the fish, both were perfectly flavoured. The noodles had just the right amount of saltiness and heat that I was able to taste the naturalness of the shrimp, which were generously large. The noodles, also, didn’t get lost in the dish. When a noodle dish is over-flavoured, the noodles are just a slimy addition to the what you’re eating. In this case, without being tasteless, the chef managed to maintain the noodles starchy blandess thus allowing the noodles to absorb the soy, the peanut flavour, the chili sauce, and the other ingredients that give Paad Thai its unique taste. Additionally, the serving size was quiet generous making my wife and I think that Tuptim caters more for families or family-style eating. In Asian culture, it’s common to reach between each other’s plates, after all. Lastly, the Paad Thai was abundant with bean sprouts, scallion and chopped peanuts to round it out – if you’re not allergic to peanuts or other nuts, that is.

The flounder was equally delicious. It was fried perfectly, giving it just enough crunch/crisp around its edges without giving it a body of fried armour. Moreover, the garlic chili sauce was absolutely divine, the chef maintaining the integrity of the recipe and his (or her) own palate. In a word, the balance brought my own palate to life – and as a foodie and home cook, I like to think mine is pretty astute and vibrant. The garlic awakened my taste buds and the chili made them dance. The flash frying process by which whole fish is cooked, before seasoned with a sauce, allows the fish to remain light and prevents it from becoming weighed down by the sauce. When a fish isn’t cooked correctly, sitting in the oil instead of the oil being poured on it, and it drowns in the sauce and becomes heavy, it sits in your stomach after eating and you regret eating it. Essentially, it ruins the natural texture of the fish and destroys the health benefits of eating seafood. With this dish, none of this was the case. The flounder was just the right size, deftly fried and expertly flavored that what we thought was a dish for which we’d have leftovers turned out to be something we finished at the table.

For dessert, the Fried Banana was so exquisitely presented that I almost didn’t want to eat it. The shell around the banana was thin, almost like a wafer, and wasn’t oily the way some other fried desserts or spring rolls are. Drizzled with sesame seeds and what I thought might be syrup, but turned out to be honey, made this heavy-sounding dessert sweet enough to cap a meal nicely and light enough to prevent any guilt from developing.

I’m mentioning the appetizer last, not because it’s not worth writing about but, while it was delicious, it was relatively basic and something that may not necessarily be unique to Tuptim. The shrimp satay was well cooked, which is a plus for shellfish since it can get overcooked  easily, and, like the shrimp in the Paad Thai, full of size and flavour. The number of skewers was generous also – four sticks, about nine inches each, filled from end to tip. Accompanying the satay was a small dish of peanut sauce and a chutney of diced cucumbers and onion.

I wouldn’t call Tuptim unassuming. It has a pink facade, after all, that is well lit and hard to miss in the main downtown area of Bloomfield Avenue. It is, however, simple and, when it comes to taste buds, simple neither means lacking in creativity or sophistication nor lacking in flavour. In fact, when it comes to food simple is often best.

It was, then, with great pleasure that we went to Tuptim for dinner last Sunday. It was almost like coming back home to an auntie’s kitchen. In the 1990s, Tuptim was a place I went to often; so close it is to where I used to find myself – the Taekwondo schools In Bloomfield then Cedar Grove, Montclair State University, chilling with friends who used to live in Verona and Glen Ridge. Nowadays, I find myself going to those parts of New Jersey less – much less – than I used to. I’m glad, though, I found myself there this time. I was reminded of another place to go for dinner with my wife, son and friends, I got to reminisce a little of some of the ‘good old days,’ I got some material for this blog (haha!) and I got to share one of my old stomping grounds with my son. I’m definitely not going to wait another seven years before I go there again and, when you’ve had your fill of holiday food and are looking for something that’ll challenge your taste buds not to stir, make sure, unlike I did, you don’t forget Tuptim.

P.S.

Tuptim is located at 600 Bloomfield Avenue, Montclair, New Jersey

Tel: 973-783-3800.

Lunch Hours:

Tuesday – Friday  11:30am to 2:30pm

Dinner Hours:

Tuesday- Thursday 5:00pm to 9:30PM

Friday – Saturday   5:00pm to 10:30pm

Sunday                11:30am to 9:30pm (Dinner menu only)

Tuptim is a BYOB and there’s a liquor store directly across Bloomfield Avenue. I recommend a sweeter wine or rose with Thai food; something like a Riesling or a Muscatel.