October 14, 2013

Dine Out Maine: Visit Babylon for exotic flavors

The Portland restaurant cooks up affordable Middle Eastern fare.

By Nancy Heiser

Don’t let the name of this humble dish dissuade you. Fowul (it’s pronounced similar to “fool”) is an amalgam of intriguing spices whipped into a yogurt, chickpea and tahini puree. This turns the rust-colored appetizer ($5.99), served with warm Iraqi bread, into a delightful, addictive spread that we consumed alone and added to a few main dishes as condiment on a recent restaurant visit in Portland. Be sure to order it.

click image to enlarge

Babylon Restaurant on Forest Avenue offers uncommon ethnic food at affordable prices.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

DINING REVIEW

BABYLON, 1192 Forest Ave., Portland. 797-2740. No website.

**

HOURS: Open daily from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

CREDIT CARDS: MC and Visa

PRICE RANGE: $2.99 to $15.99

VEGETARIAN: Yes, many options

GLUTEN-FREE: Yes

KIDS: Yes

RESERVATIONS: Yes

BAR: No alcohol is served.

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: No. There are a couple of steps to enter.

BOTTOM LINE: Babylon is one of very few restaurants in Maine that serves halal meat, important to devout Muslims. The atmosphere is a bit shabby, but the judicious use of unusual and traditional spices keeps the meal interesting. Prices are low, and a couple of deceptively simple dishes, such as the fowul, are quite good.

Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service and value: H Poor HH Fair HHH Good HHHH Excellent HHHHH Extraordinary. The Maine Sunday Telegram visits an establishment twice if the first dining experience was unsatisfactory. The reviewer dines anonymously.

The restaurant, called Babylon and open for seven months in Portland near Morrill’s Corner, serves traditional Iraqi and Middle Eastern food at the digs formerly occupied by Alhuda. A first visit was sub-par, which led me to try the restaurant again a week later. I’m glad I did.

The first time we experienced unacceptably dried out meat, flatbread reheated to the point of rubber and tepid tea. I suspect that on the second visit the regular cook had returned to the kitchen. Many of the same dishes were prepared better. And we stumbled across that fowul.

Hummus, available as an appetizer or as a side, instead of rice or French fries (don’t bother with fries), was smooth and good, not particularly garlicky or ultra-creamy, yet yards better than the supermarket’s packaged varieties.

The falafel sandwich, another boon for vegetarians, is a decent choice here, too. We ordered the version with vegetables ($7.99) – eggplant, cauliflower, lettuce and tomato. The chickpea fritter had a crisp coating and pasty interior, and as is frequently the case with falafel sandwiches, it got lost in the bread wrapping. But missing in the Babylon sandwich was a dressing to bind it all together and boost the flavor and texture.

A “double entree” shawarma platter of shaved chicken and beef came in at $15.99, the most expensive item on the menu and big enough for two. Each meat was seasoned differently, and although it still lacked juiciness and also wasn’t served with sauce or dressing, it was much more palatable this go-around. Shawarma is fast food, the meat customarily wrapped in bread to eat.

Kebab here is chopped beef and lamb formed into a wurst shape, seasoned and grilled until very dark. It’s served with basic grilled tomato and onion wedges, as is traditional.

These meat dishes intrigued by virtue of the cook’s use of Silk Road spices and herbs. Was that cardamom or clove in the beef, za’atar or sumac in the rosy-colored chicken? I can’t be sure.

It added up to hard-to-define but delicious flavors. This is not spicy cuisine, nor is it subtle. Despite this, throughout the meal I craved something more, perhaps a sauce that resembled tzatziki, to enhance the platters. The distinctive fowul ending up doing double duty, and in fact mingled with the sauceless meat nicely.

Bottled condiments on the tables at Babylon, should you want them, are ketchup and chipotle sauce. Hard to figure.

Sides were a big plus. A fresh Arabic salad of diced cucumber, tomato, parsley, mint, lemon and olive oil was deliciously sharp and crunchy and served with entrees. (Be sure to order this one and not the American salad.)

A glass-covered bowl of red lentil and rice soup, semi-pureed to retain soft rice threads and bits of tomato, was served to every diner pre-meal, a welcome touch of homestyle hospitality ($2.99 on its own).

Baklava, here made with rosewater syrup instead of honey, had a delicious moist and nutty paste. The outer phyllo layer lacked that crinkle upon breaking, but that is a small thing, especially considering the unusual homemade square is heartbreakingly cheap at 99 cents. Bring home a half-dozen.

The restaurant’s cavernous space is a bit worn. There has been an attempt at making it pretty, with polyester fabric-covered chairs tied with white bows, ornate vinyl tablecloths and artificial flowers attached to an entrance arch. The space seems set up for small banquets as well as basic service. The television, tuned to an Arabic channel, is central and always on. When you visit, focus on the uncommon ethnic food and accept the cultural differences and perhaps tight budget of the owners.

This is a family business, owned by two brothers and a sister. Both times a young man, one of the owners, was our waiter.

He was not completely fluent in English. Nor did he hover or rush – quite the opposite. I suspect this was cultural, too. Instead of exuberant American service, we received a respectful privacy and plenty of time to linger. In all instances our waiter was pleasant and made a point of bringing every item to our table on a tray.

Babylon won’t sublimely transport you to the Middle East, and the decor may be off-putting to some. But the homestyle fare will fascinate with its unusual seasonings, and the bill will be gentle on your wallet. A couple of deceptively simple dishes are quite good.

Nancy Heiser has been writing Dine Out Maine reviews since January 2011. She can be reached at nancyheiser.com.

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