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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Triangle Restaurant Week, Night Two: The superficial spoils of Babylon

Posted by on Wed, Jan 27, 2016 at 3:06 PM

click to enlarge Babylon's Moroccan salad - PHOTO BY ANGELA PEREZ
  • Photo by Angela Perez
  • Babylon's Moroccan salad
After surviving the first ice storm of 2016, I felt the need for a brief respite from the short winter slog. So for night two of Triangle Restaurant Week, I chose Babylon, an upscale Moroccan restaurant on the edge of downtown Raleigh. Exotic, right?  

In 2011, workers renovated this century-old yarn mill, painstakingly transforming it to reflect the sultry opulence of ancient Mesoptamia. The owner, Samad Hachby, a Glenwood South force who opened Mosaic Wine Lounge in 2006, visited his home country of Morocco several times to hand pick the elements for the restaurant’s interior design. The spot touts its expansive outdoor seating as seductive, exuding the “sophistication of a southern European courtyard.” As I stepped out of my cab, I turned away from the melting snow piled up along Capital Boulevard and looked toward the entrance to Babylon—to paradise, I hoped.

Palm trees lined the front of a clear plastic pavilion covering the entire outdoor space. Twinkling lights hung throughout, and I was sure that I was about to step into a lush and well-heated oasis. Alas, the enclosed patio, while nice and toasty, had all of the charm of an abandoned resort hotel pool in south Florida. The raised pool of the patio was darkened and surrounded not by jewel-toned, hand-blocked pillows, exotic fabrics and arabesque woods but by dark brown resin lounge furniture from West Elm’s beach collection. 

Inside was better, at least. There were only two or three other parties in the dining room at 8 p.m., so I was told to sit wherever wanted. I chose a seat by a window facing the patio—for the light, not for the view. The room was inviting enough, with candles and beautiful Moorish sconces that lined the exposed brick walls.

The waiter brought me both the regular menu and the Restaurant Week menu. I perused both to get a feel for what culinary adventures awaited me. The special menu selection was very limited, with only one offering for the first course—a Moroccan salad of tomato, cucumber, red onion and Moroccan vinaigrette. The second course offered two choices: grilled Norwegian salmon with roasted fingerling potatoes, braised greens and saffron vinaigrette or brisket braised in Moroccan aromatics, roasted fingerling potatoes and greens. They must have needed to unload a lot of fingerling potatoes and braised greens this week, I thought. The third course delivered, again, just one selection, of Moroccan almond rolls with vanilla gelato. The waiter told me the brisket wasn't always available, so that's the choice I made. 

And then, I waited to be transported to culinary paradise. But if disappointment is a place, it was located at 309 North Dawson last night.

I was first served a lovely Santa Alba cabernet sauvignon. That should warm me up on a chilly Tuesday night, right? Wrong. It came ice cold; I only hoped the wine would heat to room temperature by the time the meat arrived.

While I waited for my salad, I mentioned to one staff member that I’d always thought Babylon was a night club, more like a lounge restaurant. He said that I’d probably heard about how popular the patio is during the warmer months, when the clear tent is removed and people gather around the pool. I looked out the window at the quiet, empty patio and imagined more a throbbing bacchanal. But this was definitely not the case on a Tuesday evening in January, of course. On to the matter at hand, then—the food.

click to enlarge The offending brisket and fingerling potatoes - PHOTO BY ANGELA PEREZ
  • Photo by Angela Perez
  • The offending brisket and fingerling potatoes
Moroccan salads are supposed to be bright and colorful, popping with freshness and flavor. But the sad little vegetables that arrived were barely clinging for any semblance of that. The mealy, dull tomatoes, the soggy slivers of red onion, the pallid cucumbers and the limpid roasted peppers drowned in olive oil. Some spice perked up the flavors, but the entire starter felt amateur. I took a hit of cold red wine to wash away the memory.

The entrée arrived next with four thick hunks of brisket smothered in a dark, nondescript sauce of “Moroccan aromatics.” A grainy, forequarter-cut brisket requires long, slow cooking to tenderize the meat. But this brisket tasted like it might have gotten half of the time it needed. Semi-tender, fatty and completely flavorless, the only hope this meat had was the sauce. But the “Moroccan aromatics" suggested liberal douses from the 10-year old McCormick Moroccan Seasoning jar on my granny’s spice rack. They were even caked together, as though they had been scraped out and on with a butter knife. 

The fingerling potatoes were dry and overdone, but the greens did offer the only distinct flavor on the plate: vinegar. I felt my appetite disappearing. 

The third course, the Moroccan almond rolls with vanilla gelato, offered no grand redemption. Although the thin phyllo dough was nice and crispy, they seemed to have been warmed in the microwave. Some sections were burning hot, while others stood at room temperature. The almond paste was cloying. The entire pastry tasted like the pre-made batches I sometimes buy at Middle Eastern grocery stores.

At least the sumptuous interior of Babylon, evoking the warmth of the Mediterranean Sea and the golds and yellows of the Sahara desert, made me feel I was not in a typical Raleigh restaurant. Perhaps, I thought after I’d paid my check and lounged by one of the sofas as I waited for my cab, I should come back on a Friday night, when the music was bumping and lithe bodies pretended they are on exotic vacation, somewhere far away from the cold, dirty slush piled high outside the towering gates to this errant paradise.

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