For years, South Grand Boulevard has been closely associated with the foods of the Far East. But for those whose tastes run more to the Near or Middle East, there hasn't been much on the map, at least in terms of sit-down restaurants. That relative captivity ended late last year with the opening of Babylon International, a nicely appointed, friendly storefront that shares a block with such neighborhood staples as the Wei Hong Chinese restaurant and bakery, Holyland meats and grocery and (across the street), the pioneer and focal point of the South Grand multicultural vibe, Jay International Foods.
The owners of Babylon International, Abbas Alatbi and Kadhem Alyassari, have their roots in Iraq, and with that region's thousands of years of history as a crossroads of many cultures, they've seen fit to stock their menu with items that represent cuisines from a wide sphere of influence. Some dishes are listed by multiple names that illustrate their dual citizenships. Gyros, for example, are parenthetically described as shawarma; kibbi is spelled "kibbie," but when we ordered it, our waitress noted that it's also called a kooba (and the vegetable version, it turned out, was unlike what we'd encountered at the Lebanese buffet at St. Raymond's). There's even a quartet of biryanis to extend Babylon's reach all the way to the Subcontinent.
Combine this selection with prices that, except for a couple of full entrées, are under 10 bucks -- plus incredibly friendly servers, eager to expand your culinary knowledge -- and Babylon provides a measure of proof to the belief of some that the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, once known as Babylonia, is also the location of the Garden of Eden.
Ah, but everyone has a different view of paradise, and pickier diners should be forewarned that this particular version is pretty casual. Courses arrive at somewhat random intervals and occasional slowdowns occur when all 11 tables fill up. Even so, as fresh as everything was and given the level of enthusiasm of our servers, we found Babylon International a great place to hang out and sip Arabic coffee while the world walked by on South Grand.
Appetizers include kibbi, falafel, gyros, hummus, dolma and samboosa, all $4.95 or less. The kibbi, falafel and samboosa are also available as a sampler for larger parties -- or, in fact, as a wonderful inexpensive feast for a couple. The six items on the sampler are prepared simultaneously, so we were somewhat worried that one or more would illustrate evidence of having sat around for a while, but everything came out very warm, even fresh-out-of-the-deep-fryer hot: the samboosas, semicircular popovers filled with chopped vegetables (mostly broccoli) in one and a ground-beef mixture in the other; the falafel, crispy brown and nutty, shaped something like a tortellini; and the vegetable kibbi, a most unusual ring of mashed-then-fried potato wrapped around a veggie filling. In all cases, the textures were delicate and without a hint of oiliness, with densities ranging from the airiness of the samboosa to the bran-muffin consistency of the falafel.
The appetizer platter was served with three distinctly different dips: a creamy, nutty sauce based on the sesame paste called tahini; a purée of pickled mango that leaned much more strongly toward its tangy component than the sweet part; and a hot-pepper sauce, a bit of a surprise given the lack of hot spiciness throughout the rest of the menu. We also tried a separate order of baba ghanouj, attractively presented with olives at four corners and tomato wedges in between. Although pleasing, it lacked a distinctive eggplant flavor.
Judging from the chicken gyros/ shawarma we tried, the sandwich selections, all right around 3 bucks, may soon become one of the great cheap-eats deals of the South Grand strip. Granted, the four or five large chunks of marinated breast meat were heavily supplemented by tomatoes, red onion and lettuce, but the result was well beyond filling and certainly more interestingly spiced than garden-variety fast food.
Among the entrées, we wandered through the lamb biryani, beef shish kebab and -- at $12.95, the most expensive item on the menu -- the T-bone steak. The T-bone was by no means a prime cut, but what it lacked in grade quality it made up for in sheer volume: not one but two whole steaks, thinly sliced to about a quarter-inch, marinated and flavored with oregano, sesame and other spices and garnished with two grilled tomatoes and three fried slices of potato, all served over white rice. The kebab included eight chunks of a beef cut with a texture like sirloin, tender yet with a hearty chewiness, again served over white rice and accompanied by the same tomato-and-potato side. In both cases, the rice was sprinkled with sumac, a maroon powder made from a berry that gave it an exotic side flavor somewhere between lemon and cranberry.
The biryani carried mainly fruit and nut flavors, and both these and the customary aromatic spices were well simmered into the rice and the tidbits of lamb. My dining companion, who carries the unusual credentials of actually having lived in the general vicinity (Iran) for several years, suspected that the biryani used authentic sultanas, but I was unable to confirm whether it was these or good old American seedless golden raisins.
No liquor is served, nor is a liquor license immediately anticipated, so we stuck with the pulverized, boiled Arabic coffee. It's something of an acquired taste, dark and served in the customary long-handled pot that goes under the various identities of dalla, raqwa, ibrik and cezve and probably a few others. We wimped out and sweetened it quite a bit; the main problem was that when the coffee was poured in bits into a demitasse, the contents of the multinamed vessel cooled more quickly than we could finish the whole thing. (Nonetheless, we had a strong urge to do a full lap around Tower Grove Park when we were finished.)
The rehabbed storefront has been neatly finished in clay tones with a chessboard floor and a small, eclectic selection of Eastern and Western art. On one visit, the authenticity of the atmosphere was enhanced by pulsating, plaintive Middle Eastern music; on a weekend, the level of audio spice had been reduced a bit to Zamfir's Pan-flute stylings of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. If you're unfamiliar with the various dishes on the menu, by the way, be sure to ask your server to take you for the cook's tour through the display case at the rear of the dining room.
Add a few more colors to the ethnic kaleidoscope that makes South Grand one of St. Louis' premier restaurant districts.