Restaurant Review

Dramatic decor and inspired Moroccan twists

CorrespondentNovember 11, 2011 

  • 309 N. Dawson St., Raleigh


    Cuisine: Moroccan, Mediterranean


    Prices: $$$

    Atmosphere: Moroccan casbah, with courtyard

    Noise level: moderate to high

    Service: well-trained and enthusiastic

    Recommended: tagine samak, Marrakesh couscous, pizzas

    Open: Dinner Monday-Saturday.

    Reservations: recommended on weekends

    Other: full bar; get a sitter; good vegetarian selection; large enclosed patio; live DJ Friday and Saturday late nights

    The N&O's critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: Extraordinary Excellent. Above average. Average. Fair.

    The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

You don't need an archaeologist's permit to explore Babylon (the restaurant, that is, not the ancient Mesopotamian city), but it doesn't hurt to have a good GPS. Accessible from a service road off southbound Dawson Street, Babylon is in a renovated 100-year-old knitting mill in a historically industrial district that's just three blocks off Glenwood South, but has been terra incognita to the nightlife crowd.

That changed dramatically in June, when Babylon opened and became a hot spot overnight. The restaurant no doubt owes part of its early success to the fact that owner Samad Hachby already has a strong following as owner of Mosaic, a popular bar on Glenwood South. And it certainly doesn't hurt that there's nothing else remotely like Babylon in the Triangle.

Entering through a massive gate in the high brick wall attached to the front of the building, you find yourself in a spacious, secluded courtyard whose focal point is a stone- and tile-clad pool with lighting that gradually morphs the color of its water from blue to green. A prime attraction since the restaurant's opening, the courtyard's appeal will naturally wax and wane with the seasons.

Setting the mood

But the visual drama is just as high indoors, where the furnishings - from marble floors to colorful mosaic tiles and lanterns - are almost exclusively from the owner's native Morocco. Hachby commissioned the jaw-droppingly ornate ceiling of the private banquet room (aptly named the Palace Room), which took two months to paint by hand in Morocco and another month to install here.

The decor sets a suitable mood - and a high bar for the mostly Moroccan-inspired menu. A passionate hobby cook who doesn't think of himself as a chef, Hachby usually clears that bar, and only occasionally stumbles. He wisely limits his menu to a manageable eight or so entrees and a similar number of listings under the Salads & Tapas heading. Rounding out the list are a handful of vegetarian pizzas.

A faithful rendering of zaalook, which Hachby describes as "Moroccan ratatouille," features eggplant in an exotically spicy tomato sauce. Served cold, zaalook is part of a vegetarian appetizer platter that also includes roasted peppers and Moroccan olives, making a fine shareable nibbling companion for the restaurant's rustic house-baked bread and a glass of wine from a small but thoughtfully chosen list.

Smart adaptation

Hachby doesn't always insist on strict authenticity, though. His take on the classic Moroccan meat pie, chicken bastilla, is a prime example of a flexible approach whose goal is to capture the essence of a dish. In a nod to Western tastes, he tempers the honeyed sweetness that is characteristic of the cinnamon- and saffron-spiced filling of chicken and toasted almonds. He strays from the traditional flat pie shape, too, rolling the filo pastry crust into an egg roll shape that's easier to eat with the hands.

Bodega lamb straddles the Mediterranean, marrying spicy Moroccan harissa and Spanish romesco sauce to complement the skewers of grilled lamb and red peppers. The combination is inspired, though the dish is sometimes marred by chewy lamb.

The braised lamb shank in a lamb tagine was surprisingly dry, too, when I sampled it. The meat was deeply flavorful, though, in a dark, sweet-savory sauce studded with prunes, apricots and toasted almonds.

Tagine samak, which features fresh fish (options have included sushi grade salmon, monkfish, and recently, grouper) topped with a pungent Moroccan parsley sauce called chermoula, is a more reliable bet. So is Marrakesh couscous, which serves up succulent bone-in chicken over couscous that's moistened with the rich broth in which the chicken simmered, and topped with a medley of chickpeas, raisins and caramelized onions.

Pizzas worth a taste

I'll confess that I wasn't expecting much from the pizzas. Figuring they were offered as a nod to less adventurous tastes, I hadn't even planned to order one.

Then our waiter raved about them so enthusiastically that I changed my mind.

Am I ever glad I did. Baked in a stone oven, the crisp, thin-crusted Paysanne (topped with tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, grilled seasonal vegetables and a drizzle of balsamic) was a surprise hit.

But maybe it shouldn't have been such a surprise. After all, the name of the place is Babylon. If Samad Hachby had wanted to open a straightforward Moroccan restaurant, he could have named it Marrakesh

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