Grazing: Sumerian roots
Searching for shared history at Babylon Cafe, Greek Taverna Plaka, and Ghion Cultural Hall
There's a history lesson lurking behind the menu of the new Babylon Café (2257 Lenox Road, 404-329-1007). Civilizations are doomed. They reach their zenith and then they crash, sometimes sending humanity back to the primary condition of eating or being eaten.
The menu at Babylon originates in the ancient civilization of Sumer. Its beginnings date back to 5500 B.C. in southern Iraq, then called Mesopotamia. Many scholars believe that no civilization gave the world so much, from arithmetic to writing. Its influence spread throughout that area of the world — to Persia and Turkey, to Greece and India, even to Ethiopia. The culinary pot was stirred and it's virtually impossible to say now which culture originated which dish, but the Sumerian legacy binds them all.
Because Greek Taverna Plaka (2196 Cheshire Bridge Road, 404-636-2284) and the Ethiopian Ghion Cultural Hall (2080 Cheshire Bridge Road, 704-449-8991) are nearby, I thought it might be fun to compare them to Babylon.
I’ve dined at Babylon twice — the lunch and dinner menus are the same — and the best dish was a whole tilapia split open and grilled flat, served bone-in. Saad Marwad, co-owner/chef with his wife Kelly Rafia, explained that it is Iraq’s favorite dish. He loves crispy skin, so the fish bears a heavy char. Any bitterness of that fades quickly under the spices with which the fish is brushed. Marwad reeled off flavors common in all Iraqi cooking, from pomegranate juice to cardamom. The latter even lightly scents the table water here. Rose water and cumin turn up in some dishes.
Cardamom is best known for its native use in Indian cuisine. That's a clear example of the way Baghdad cooks, considered the best in the Middle East, imported complementary spices. Meanwhile, India appears to have imported tikka, cubed lamb or chicken, from Persia. The Greeks turned Sumer's shawarma into gyro.
Mezze — appetizers — are, of course, similar throughout the Middle East. Both Taverna Plaka and Babylon have the utterly annoying policy of not offering a sample platter of starters on the regular menu. I did try Babylon's baba ghanoush, falafel, and grape leaves stuffed with rice (dulma). The latter were repulsively gooey to my taste, but delicious to a friend. The baba ghanoush ranked incredible, primarily because of the freshness of the eggplant itself; a slight burn added edginess. The falafel was hot, crispy, and creamy. Alas, the "Iraqi bread," something like single-layered pita, had utterly no taste at all.
Meanwhile, over at Taverna Plaka, I ordered the grape leaves and found them more to my taste, probably because a strong shot of lemon tempered the oiliness. The restaurant provides customers a complimentary do-it-yourself hummus at the meal's start. It's partially ground chickpeas served in a wood mortar. You grind them to your preferred texture with a pestle. Honestly, this was my favorite dish.
Down the street at Ghion Cultural Hall, one of the most pleasantly offbeat restaurants I've visited in some time, I found a vegetarian sampler plate. It was too much food for one, especially since I really wanted to try the lamb, something all three restaurants have in common.
It will take a more microscopic palate than mine to detect a specific Sumerian note in the combo-plate of two lamb stews served over the spongy injera bread with which all Ethiopian food is picked up and deposited in the piehole. One was allegedly spicy yebeg key wot and the other was mild yebeg alicha. Both were bland and almost as gooey as my earlier grape leaves. I expected some vegetables on the plate to provide different textures and flavors. There was only a little salad cup of vinegary iceberg lettuce and jalapeño slices. Not good.
In fact, it was all so not-good that I couldn't eat half the food. The server was shocked when I declined a take-home container. Another employee came to my table — the dining room was otherwise empty — and demanded to know why I disliked the food. I lied and said it was good, just very filling. She challenged me. Finally, I ran out the door.
Back at Babylon, I tried the qurma sabzi, a lamb stew that includes spinach, parsley, chickpeas, and more of those mysterious spices that gave the dish a flavor I've never encountered. I'm especially anxious to try the other stew — oxtail cooked in tomato sauce with okra.
I actually expected to rank the lamb shank at Taverna as my favorite. Sorry. The keyword here is "slippery." The small but $20 shank was stewed too long and sat in a huge bowl of slippery orzo pasta in a slippery tomato confit with shaved sheep's milk cheese that added a bit of goo — did the Sumerians like goo? — to the slipperiness.
Finally, let's note the ambiance of these three post-Sumerian venues. Babylon, painted a loud blue and yellow outside, is in a building that has been death to a series of ethnic restaurants for 30 years. The interior remains pretty shabby, so don't expect white tablecloths or, for the present, many other people. Ghion Cultural Hall, as the name suggests, is more than a restaurant. It's a live-music venue on weekends. The main dining room features comfy rattan-like seating at round tables or encircling the usual large, colorful baskets. Taverna Plaka, a black space urgently in need of sprucing-up, is probably best known for its raucous, ouzo-fueled "Zorba dancing" and belly dancers. I went at opening time, 5 p.m., to avoid that. The restaurant was empty except for one other table, so I heard "Opa!" half-heartedly screamed only once.
Where is the legacy of Sumer in all of this? Obviously, it's most evident at Babylon Café, and, even if you can't taste it so clearly elsewhere, you can, I discovered, hear it in the music. If for no other reason, do go to Ghion Cultural Hall to watch the Ethiopian dance videos that play while you dine. They are, I promise, more interesting than belly dancing.