At its soft opening earlier this summer, Babylon beckoned diners through a towering gate cut into a brick wall high enough to mask the lavish world unfolding inside. There in the center of a muted brick courtyard reminiscent of old city riads in Marrakech, an enormous pool set into a waist-high, rustic-hued mosaic wall of imported Moroccan tiles serves as the centerpiece for outdoor dining.
Leggy women, perched on tall, white-cushioned stools, leaned across slate-colored and glass-topped tables, listening to conversations in a foreign language, leaving lipstick stains on the rims of martinis handed to them by men dressed in designer jeans.
But beyond the pomp and swank, it's a restaurant, so the enduring question is: How's the food?
Samad Hachby, who also owns the chic Mosaic Wine Lounge, opened Babylon without an executive chef. Asked if he plans to hire one, his eyes widen and he replied, "Why?" explaining that his kitchen operates via a creative team and a menu filtered "through the prism of Samad Hachby."
"The name Babylon symbolizes a sophisticated, crossover place," he said. "And Moroccan food is a crossover cuisine with lots of influences—African, Berber, French, Jewish."
The idea of not employing an executive chef to create a menu for such a high-end, large-scale restaurant seems a bit pretentious—if not risky and almost reckless—for an area impressed less with glitz and more with gourmet.
Nonetheless, Hachby immersed himself in the complicated project. It took two years of construction, financing and preparation to renovate the 100-year-old Melrose Knitting Mill into Raleigh's first upscale Moroccan nosh spot.
Hachby said he returned to his home country several times a year to buy design elements to fulfill his vision. He shipped to the U.S. four 40-foot containers of imported goods, among them 3,000 tiles from Fez, 400 square feet of travertine marble for the floors, large tin overhead lanterns patterned like paper snowflakes and glistening crystal chandeliers. He even transported an entire ceiling, the separate slabs of intricately painted mosaics—in muted saucy reds, royal hues of blue and bright bits of chartreuse—that had to be carefully constructed to aerially anchor an incredible side room against the backdrop of exposed brick walls and high-backed, burnt-red chairs and booths.
Compared with Babylon's meticulously crafted ambiance, the approach to the menu seems more laissez-fare. Not that Hachby is without talent or a sharp sense of what makes a beautiful, high-quality, delicious meal. He's been known to quip about a lack of simple, delicious food offerings in Raleigh for the international set. With the food at Babylon, he keeps the flavors traditional, though not overpowering, for a modern palate.
I admit I came to the soft opening with a bias steeped in a memory of wanderlust. A quick trip to Morocco last year enhanced my obsession with the cuisine. While I didn't expect to find boiled sheep's heads leering at me from street carts like at Marrakech's Djemaa el-Fna outdoor market, I did have expectations. Merguez sausage, for one, a traditional, expertly spiced lamb sausage tipped off with a hint of honey, remains absent from the menu. Why not serve it at an upscale restaurant like Babylon, if Café Helios used to have a homemade version on its coffee shop chalkboard just a few blocks away? Babylon's chicken tagine, while authentically spiced, wasn't served in a traditional clay pot or with couscous.
But as Sachby said, his vision is to re-create traditional fare in a way that appeals to a modern palate. The complimentary starter of warm, homemade bread and imported olives, for example, is his doing. Like the décor, most of Babylon's authentic spices and condiments are imported. The cured, green-and-black Mediterranean super fruits crinkle into a salty pucker on my lips, leaving me happily teary-eyed and converting two dinner companions, who had an aversion to olives, into olive lovers.
The braised, skinless quarter chicken in the tagine dish was tender, sauced in a smooth, sweet and smoky blend of spices—ras el hanout (a 35-spice blend), sweet paprika, cardamom and ginger—simmered with dried apricots, which could have used a little more stewing for texture. But it was oddly paired with a freshly roasted red pepper relish. The current menu only serves tagine with a leg of lamb for $22. The honeyed chicken bastilla entrée ($16) that a friend ordered would be well suited as an appetizer to split among three or four people. Finely shredded chicken is tossed with ground almonds, cinnamon, sugar, honey and saffron and then neatly packed into two large phyllo dough rectangles.
And while the soft opening gave us a decent initial taste of what to expect on the menu, the need to tie loose ends was obvious. Yet by the grand opening, Babylon's menu and operation had tightened up a bit. There are now two experienced cooks on the line—sous chef Taion McElveen and line cook Geraldo Silva—whom Hachby guides through Moroccan cooking methods. Nonetheless, Hachby was on the line without a chef, doing the braising, saucing and plating himself.
During the 9 p.m. frenzy, we ordered the fétard salad ($9) and pizza paysanne ($16) and sat at the bar with cocktails. Try the cucumber martini first, then a Black Forest rendition made with pure cocoa for dessert ($9). The mixed-greens salad tossed with scant amounts of pears, figs, walnuts and feta bodes well as a starter in a peach vinaigrette. Grilled eggplant, roasted pepper and zucchini topped the pizza, which was baked in a stone oven and lightly sauced with homemade marinara made with tomatoes from Wild Onion Farms.
Entrées better-suited for a first trip into Moroccan cuisine include Babylon's royal couscous ($18), a bowl of couscous topped with tender chunks of lamb with a charcoal flavor reminiscent of an outdoor family village gathering somewhere faraway.
McElveen, the sous chef, has possibly perfected what can be pegged as nouveau Moroccan soul food in his chicken confit ($19). Dig in as soon as this dish hits your table, while it's still piping hot and can warm your insides. Tinged an aureate yellow by the heavy dose of kharkum (Moroccan tumeric), this entrée adds a homey flair to the menu. The slow-braised quarter chicken starts with robust notes of garlic and cinnamon until a steady heat accented by white pepper hits the tongue. The chicken sits atop a pile of hand-cut frites with a lemon confit garnish. Combine the three onto a forkful for a well-rounded bite each time.
Vegetarians and pescatarians can relish a fancy roasted salmon ($18) or the vegetable couscous ($15) cooked in a five-spice broth. For dessert, skip anything chocolate and toss back a slice of rum cake, made by a home baker.
Hachby's vision of indulgence has yet to translate into menu mainstays. Nonetheless, a trip to Babylon, though the eatery is evolving, is worth taking.