Restaurant Review - Change of hearth
Highland's beloved Babette's has a new home, old appeal
You can exhale now. Babette's Cafe has survived its move down the avenue.
It is invariably the kiss of death when a popular restaurant enlarges, remodels or pulls up stakes for a new location. The danger to Babette's was, theoretically, even greater. Babette's is not simply popular; Babette's is beloved. Owner Marla Adams's delightful theme dinners — based on such movies and books as Big Night, Under the Tuscan Sun and, yes, Babette's Feast — have fostered a familial atmosphere among the clientele. There are times when Babette's feels more like a dinner party at the home of a gourmet friend than a restaurant.
Happily, it still feels that way. And contrary to the usual intent of a restaurant move, the dining room in the renovated bungalow is smaller than the dining room in Babette's original location a few blocks down North Highland Avenue. It's the kitchen and storage space that got the attention here. And from what I understand, the new kitchen is not much more spacious than the old. The layout,though, is much better.
The move has resulted in benefits for patrons as well. Principally, the many windows allow the room to feel more spacious and let in the golden, late-day light that heightens the tone and texture of the mustard-colored walls. If you care to brave the heat and pollen, there's a deck in back to accommodate you.
What remains unchanged is Babette's charming blend of elegant and rustic. Not only in the decor but also in the food, which changes with the seasons.
Still on the spring menu, for example, are those juicy lamb loin chops, grilled crusty-crisp under a coating of fresh herbs, daubed with red wine reduction and accompanied by shoestring potatoes; beef tenderloin beneath creamy, piquant gorgonzola sauce; and the addictive artichoke and olive ravioli.
Grilled corn chowder with crab, one of the most inspired soups of all time, makes a triumphant return. If you want to eat light, pair this delicately sweet and impossibly creamy soup with a salad — especially the roasted peppers and goat cheese with a spiffy tomato vinaigrette — or the asparagus and leek tart. Both the soup and the tart also are on the brunch menu, where they are ideal.
New to the menu are a few seafood dishes: baked filet of halibut with mustard crust, for example, and sauteed shrimp with delectable potato gnocchi that is not to be missed.
Still, it is the more or less classic dishes that continue to draw me to Babette's. Flavorful chicken roasted with olives and tomatoes. Or a navarin of lamb — completely without fat — braised and presented with crunchy spring peas, small carrots, crisp haricots verts and glazed shallots. The velvet richness of the greatly reduced sauce is unbelievable.
With the exception of the espresso flan or the berries and cream, I find Babette's desserts too heavy (the chocolate bread pudding with banana ice cream) or too dully dry (the dried cherry tart with almond crust).
Over the years, Babette's has tried various forms of the reservations/no reservations/call-ahead-and-get-on-a- list routine. The current mode is an all-reservation dining room every night. You can book ahead for weekends. If you are in the neighborhood on a Saturday night, however, it won't hurt to drop by; you may be able to take advantage of a last-minute cancellation.
Parking is valet only. A crew of what appears to me to be teenagers (but then, people are looking younger and younger to me all the time) manages somehow to squeeze 80 cars into the microscopic space behind the restaurant. Do not, whatever you do, park in the lots for Manuel's Tavern; you will be towed. That would be a depressing way to end a pleasant evening.