Babette's scores big with soothing aural and oral favorites
Thanksgiving is behind us, Chistmas is bearing down and that means I'm engaged in my annual effort to avoid the dreadful music so many Atlanta restaurants play this time of year. I should begin issuing an annual list of the worst offenders, but I refuse to do the research.
You can imagine my great pleasure, then, when I walked into Babette's Cafe (471 N. Highland Ave., 404-523-9121) last week and heard the voice of Cesaria Evora instead of Wayne Newton's 20-minute version of "Little Drummer Boy." Evora, a Cape Verde artist, has popularized that island nation's melancholy musical form called morna. Any restaurant that plays morna has hit a homerun as soon as I get through the door.
It's a fitting musical form for Babette's. The animating principle of morna and also the title of a well-known Evora song is "sodade." Not very easily translated in English, it describes a kind of bittersweet nostalgia, a longing for the lost home but also a generalized yearning for authenticity (not unlike the Greek "pothos" or the German "sehnsucht").
You can find something of that experience at Babette's. The stenciled walls, the copper pots, the warm lighting are all meant to create a kind of old country Euro-nostalgia. The restaurant, a longtime fixture at its present location, will be moving up the road to a remodeled cottage as soon as February. I sincerely hope it manages to maintain its cozy style without falling into the inevitable clichés of redone intown bungalows.
The menu, like the decor, is heavy on comfort. I had a singular motivation in revisiting Babette's. The cassoulet ($15.75) has returned for the winter. Among my favorite wintertime dishes, this dish features meats baked with white beans in broth under a crust of breadcrumbs. Babette's has long been known for the dish, but a year or two ago, I encountered a miserable version there that was basically a soup. When I reported such, I received an avalanche of e-mail from disbelieving diners and even a former kitchen employee who seemed to think I was inaccurately reporting what I ate.
I am happy to say that last week I found the dish greatly improved, with an appropriate crust and amount of broth. I will say, though, that the crust, unlike the true Gascony version, had not been broken, stirred in and allowed to reform. (This may be impractical in a restaurant version.) And the lamb, duck, sausage and chicken had lost a good bit of their integrity. OK, I'm kvetching like a purist. It was mainly tasty.
Everything else Rose D'Agostino and I sampled was very good. I am happy to see sweetbreads making a comeback in Atlanta's restaurants. Babette's version features the buttery organ sautéed and served in a reduction with wild mushrooms and hazelnuts ($7.95). Rose started with everyone's longtime favorite here, the fried oysters over a dill biscuit with cucumber sauce ($6.50). The restaurant is also featuring a winter squash purée with arugula cream ($4.25) that sounds interesting.
Rose's entree was a pair of huge grilled lamb loin chops, encrusted in herbs and served with a red-wine reduction ($20.50). The dish was served with a giant mound of slivered, fried potato sticks. I thought they would be difficult to maneuver onto a fork. Rose agreed and then managed to eat every one of them.
Other entrees feature root vegetables, like parsnips cooked in a gratin and served with roasted duck or baked snapper. There is potato gnocchi with sautéed shrimp and chicken roasted with olives and tomatoes and served with grilled Raddichio. Great winter fare. It's time to make your reservation for the annual New Year's Eve feast that gives the restaurant its name.
Here and there
Lulu and I lunched recently at the rather kinky Bosnia Cafe on Ponce, across from the Dekalb Farmers Market. People on high-protein diets will appreciate the nearly all-meat menu of grilled specialties. Order one mixed grill. It's plenty for two and includes everything from liver to spicy little sausages and pork. Be sure you get a side of cabbage salad for some needed contrast, though. Of course, you could order the fried veal brains and let me know how they were. I've only visited during the day and look forward to dining there a weekend night when dancing is featured.
I am sick to announce that Carroll Street Bakery in Cabbagetown has closed. Kim Vidal's kooky bakery and sandwich shop, with some of the best cakes in town, was an absolute delight. Metro Deli on Cherokee in Grant Park has also closed. The two closings leave wonderful Foodz 2 Go on Cherokee, across from the zoo, with reduced competition. If you haven't visited this amazing take-out shop, with some of the best sandwiches in town and a growing variety of pastries, you need to give it a try soon.