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Middlin' Middle Eastern 

The menu may be a bit predictable at BABYLON CAFE, but the homemade bread, grape leaves and teas are worth the trip.

I have nothing against pita bread, the soft, pliable pocket that for most of us is inextricably associated with dishes made from chick peas and meat sliced from a spit. Pita bread wraps around shawarma like a bunting; it easily toasts into a bachelor-simple pizza or a snappy crouton; it out-swabs every other bread product I can think of, leavened or not. But the main attraction at Babylon Cafe, a Middle Eastern restaurant that sprouted in September where Cuban food once lived (inside the second Liborio Restaurant) on Maple Street, is that the homemade bread is not pita.

No, Najah Alsherees' bread is as thick as a stack of five pitas. Made from a recipe inspired by bread in his native Iraq, its attitude resembles focaccia: both spongy and sturdy, with outstanding olive oil flavor and outer crust the color of a toasted pine nut. Take a bag home, and in the morning it will smell like a doughnut. You can see the irregular, crescent-shaped loaves piled in the kitchen where Alsherees cooks alone; his partner in the cafe's two-man show, a waitress who also tends to the laundromat next door, delivers the cut pieces heaped in baskets like warm, severed moons. I guarantee you won't miss the pita bread.

You may request nearly anything swaddled in pita if habit moves you, but eggplant, garlic, spinach and roasted vegetable sandwiches come only on toasted Najah bread, which provides sufficient foil against the damp of cooked vegetables. The first, composed of baked eggplant sliced too thinly to taste, tomato, onion and feta, was satisfying primarily because feta and half-caramelized onions are as perfect a union as ham and Swiss. The roasted garlic sandwich struck a better balance and was one of the menu's only unique offerings: whole roasted garlic cloves, warm tomatoes, onions, romaine and enough salty feta to keep the flowery Lebanese iced tea in constant production.

While I was pleased to discover a few favorites among the offerings, like hot mint and sage teas that were husky enough in early January's frost to keep an Eskimo insulated, there are few surprises on Babylon's menu. It reads like we have come to expect Middle Eastern restaurant menus to read: hummus, zaater bread, lentil soup, falafel, chicken tecka and baklava. The cafe actually sits at the center of a triangle of Middle Eastern restaurants around Tulane and Loyola undergrad campuses, all of which offer nearly identical menus. The only item I found missing at Babylon Cafe was fattouche, a salad starring pita chips.

The clientele was oddly non-collegiate considering students' usually keen noses when this kind of quantity-to-price ratio arrives in the neighborhood. I heard one couple tell Alsherees they were happy to have him "back." His first Babylon Cafe was located on Canal Street but closed two years ago due to thin dinnertime traffic. I wonder if they had waited that long for his vegetarian grape leaves, which preoccupy me already, just 24 hours since I first devoured them. Stuffed with rice, cracked wheat and lentils, they were not mushy but burst at the seams with bright flavors of olive oil, lemon and tomato. The meatier version, also memorable, was caper-tangy outside and neatly packed inside with rice, pepper, warm spices and lamb.

Grapes leaves plates, served both as appetizer and entree, were smeared with a garnish of what has become my preferred labna in town due to its extreme sourness and generous handfuls of mint. Labna also accompanied lemon-shaped fried kibbeh. One great bite into the kibbeh's center revealed layers as distinct as a Cadbury egg: a crumbly mix of ground lamb, browned pine nuts and onion at the center; an insulating layer of moist cracked wheat like the white of a hard-cooked egg; finally, an outer, super-fried shell rolled in sumac, the rusty, tart spice made from the sumac tree's ground berries.

The labna, a pristine, lemon-tinged hummus served with each entree and baba ghanoush so full of char that non-smokers are in for a rush -- all the usual spreads came pooled with chartreuse olive oil and swirled on plates like Van Gogh's night skies. Lemony spinach pies, like homemade Hot Pockets, were made with hand-formed, chewy dough rather than the usual, butter-logged pastry flakes. The only revolutionary at my table, I welcomed this straying from the phyllo factor. Spicy gyro meat, all crispy edges and glazed with tahini sauce, was as addictive as Buffalo wings; delicious shish kufta, the waitress' recommendation, was a minted lamb meatball that had been flattened and charred briefly on the grill.

Oily, barely garlicked falafel coins didn't inspire me to try more than one, and I wished that the chicken shawarma had had more personality than a roughly chopped, dry breast of spiced chicken. Finally, if I were allowed one more request, it would be for the kitchen to boil its Turkish coffee to order rather than store it in a portable press pot. It would resonate at the end of the meal with the homespun, hands-on style of fresh Najah bread, walls the color of a daisy's center and Baylon Cafe's earnest, two-man show.

click to enlarge Taylor Barry (seated) is a regular at Najah Alsherees' BABYLON CAFE, housed in the former Liborio Restaurant location on Maple Street. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Taylor Barry (seated) is a regular at Najah Alsherees' BABYLON CAFE, housed in the former Liborio Restaurant location on Maple Street.
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