- Richard Foss
By Richard Foss, Dining and Cuisine Writer
A great restaurant experience takes you out of your everyday world. You live in the moment for a while, basking in attentive service and the sensory experiences associated with fine food. After the time away, you return to everyday life a bit more ready to deal with its trials.
Among the many fine dining options in the Harbor Area, one is incomparably ahead of the others when it comes to immersion in another place and time. For 40 years, Babouch has welcomed visitors to its fantasy of a Moroccan palace on Gaffey Street. Brothers Yousef and Kamal Keroles opened the restaurant in 1978, and although it is under new ownership the experience remains the same.
The exterior is plain and white, but inside there is a riot of color. Patterned fabrics cover almost every surface from the Moorish carpets on the floor to the tent-like pleated ceiling. The lighting, with leaded glass and stamped tin lamps, adds to the exotic atmosphere.
You’re led to a low mosaic-patterned table, where you are seated on couches with pillows, just as you would be at a Moroccan home. (A note for those who wonder how comfortable this is: it’s a slightly unusual posture for those who are used to taller chairs, but even the person at our table who recently had hip surgery had no complaints.)
Menus are offered and a staff member comes by with a ewer and a basin to wash your hands with scented water. This is part of the ritual of a Moroccan meal. It was once a necessity because Moroccans usually eat with their fingers. Forks are provided, but most people still follow traditional custom and don’t use them.
Meals can be ordered a la carte or as a set dinner, since the price difference is only a few dollars almost everyone orders the works. This includes lentil soup, salads, and b’stilla, the chicken and egg stuffed pastry that is one of Morocco’s favorite items. As much food as that is, on our most recent visit we tried a starter in the form of “spicy cigars.” These are essentially egg rolls made with flaky pastry, stuffed with a mildly spiced beef-and-onion mixture and topped with a line of hot mustard. I would order them again but ask for the mustard on the side.
Bowls of cumin-spiced lentil soup began the meal, followed by salads. Separate portions of pickled carrots, chopped tomatoes, and an eggplant and vegetable puree are served over a lettuce mix with minimal dressing. The fragrant but not hot spicing in each element is reminiscent of Spanish food — no surprise, since southern Spain was under Moroccan rule for hundreds of years. Those who get in the spirit of things will take pinches of the hot bread served with this course to pick up the salads; it’s tricky at first but you quickly get the hang of it.
The next course is the b’stilla, layer after layer of flaky dough wrapped around a mixture of shredded chicken, boiled egg, nuts, and spices, then topped with cinnamon and powdered sugar just before serving. They arrive too hot to eat, and pros will poke a hole in the top and wait a minute or two to let out the steamy heat. These smell so good that you’ll probably risk burning your tongue by starting early; it’s a good idea to have some water ready.
We did, but we also had wine, which the Moroccans have made for centuries. In the spirit of experimentation we ordered the house California Chardonnay and the Moroccan version by Thaleb. Somewhat to our surprise, the Moroccan was the clear winner. It’s not going to keep the premium French or Napa winemakers up at night worrying, but it’s a nice unoaked wine with floral and fruity notes.
Our main courses were chicken cooked with lemon and olives, rabbit in paprika sauce and lamb stewed with onions. All were slow-braised in the clay pot called a tagine, a style of cooking that renders meats meltingly tender. North African cooking often pairs olives and tart pickled lemon with complex mélanges of spices so that no single flavor dominates and that was the case with each of our items. The chicken had an agreeable saltiness and was most citrusy, while the paprika and pepper in the rabbit sauce made us think of someone making Hungarian goulash in Tangier using local ingredients. The lamb with onion was most down to earth, a pot roast in rich gravy with a touch of the exotic. Each entrée was served with steamed vegetables and some fresh couscous that served to mop up the gravy. We paired these with Moroccan syrahs and cabernet alongside a California cab and the syrah won this time.
Dessert is included with all meals and involves mint tea served with a Moroccan pastry made by dropping dough in boiling oil and frying it until crisp, then coating it with honey. If you’re thinking that sounds like the Pennsylvania Dutch funnel cakes that are a staple at county fairs, you’re right. Both cultures had the same idea, though the Moroccan version is lighter and lacier than anything you’ve had at a county fair.
As we ate, the woman reading Tarot cards at a nearby table had changed into a variety of veils. As we left, she was starting to belly dance. The cards and the dance are native to Egypt, not Morocco, but we were happily full and not inclined to quibble. Dinner for three, with a starter and two glasses of wine each, ran $135 — pretty remarkable for a few hours immersed in the sights, sounds, scents, and tastes of another continent. After four decades, Babouch is in good hands and is still doing what it does well — a rare outpost of a high civilization by the side of a busy street.
Babouch is at 810 S. Gaffey in San Pedro. Open daily for dinner only. Reservations recommended.
Details: (310) 831-0246