Babani's Kurdish Restaurant

A Very Rice Place

Babani's Kurdish Restaurant

544 St. Peter St., St Paul; 602-9964

It was a gray, rainy morning--the clouds were piled up thick, the birds were hidden away, the citizenry was toying with the idea of moving to St. Kit's. The phone rang. It was Dan Gilchrist, a reader who works at the state capitol--have you been to Babani's, he asked. It's Kurdish, where Ruam Mit Thai used to be, it's pretty good, sort of a cross between Greek and Indian, and then the clincher: I worry about them. My loyal reader was worried about them. Now I, too, was worried about them. I worry about so many things: what the ozone layer is up to, whether the British will all come down with mad cow disease, that we all know the frogs have three legs and yet there's no rioting in the streets. Now, the list is compounded by fears about Babani's. And concern about the dismal holes in my education. How did I get to be this old without the slightest clue about the Kurds?

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Babani's Kurdish Restaurant

544 St. Peter St.
St. Paul, MN 55102

Category: Restaurant > Health

Region: St. Paul (Downtown)

So I headed to the downtown Minneapolis library, where I usually find the answers to my questions as long as I keep close watch over my valuables at all times. There I found that the Kurds live in the mountainous strip where Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran meet, that they're the largest ethnic group in the world without a state, that if they're not having their towns razed by the Turks they're getting gassed by the Iraqis, and that there are as many as 25 million of them--as the Lonely Planet put it, "Exact numbers are difficult to get, as many members of the population seem to be constantly on the move, fleeing whichever country is currently oppressing them most." It seems that Western powers don't like to pay attention to the injustices done the Kurds because they don't want to offend the Turks, who help keep the Iraqis and the Iranians under control.

While I was at the library I also did some poking into what exactly comprises Kurdish food and I found, through a couple of books, including Sheri Laizer's Into Kurdistan: Frontiers Under Fire, that it's not unlike Turkish or Syrian food--mostly bread, rice, salads, roasted or fried meats, kebabs, and fruit. Thus informed I went to Babani's, and tried nearly everything on the (admittedly short) menu. I liked the soups and salads best--especially the Dowjic (2.25), a lemon chicken soup thick with rice, and enlivened with basil and a tangy hint of yogurt. It's as thick as a minestrone, a sticks-to-your-bones-but-won't-weigh-you-down real winner of a soup. The Niskena ($1.95), a lentil soup with the texture of a thin split-pea soup, was also spicy, flavorful, and delicious. Babani's tabouli ($1.50) was good, chock full of parsley and entirely fresh. The other salads are items you'll recognize from Greek menus, and they were both good: the Jaajic ($1.95) is actually a cereal bowl of tzatziki--cucumbers, fresh dill, and garlic in yogurt, and the dinner salad ($2.95) is a bowl of iceberg lettuce with a tomato wedge, feta cheese, a pepporoncini, and red-wine vinegar dressing. Every dinner entree comes with your choice of one of these soups or salads.

The entrees, though, are less thrilling. Somehow there was something under-spiced, or under-complicated, or under-thought-through about the whole enterprise. The vegetarian Dolma ($7.95) were, according to the menu, "stuffed with rice, sunflower seeds, and special herbs, steamed in fresh garlic, lemon and tomato juices." Stuffed grape leaves are one of my all-time favorite snacks, and so I was looking forward to these--but the stuffing was simply tomato-pasty and bland, without a single herb in sight. Serving these plain-rice stuffed morsels on a bed of (perfectly cooked) basmati rice just seemed silly--like serving french fries on a bed of hash browns. The Shilas ($7.25), which change nightly, are vegetables, like green beans or chick-peas, simmered in a tasty broth, and served beside a plate of rice. One night I had the chick-pea shila, and I received a cereal bowl of just chick-peas in broth and a dinner plate of nothing but white rice--I felt like Redneck Joe lost in the land of the vegans. It's hard to believe that this is your dinner. If it were chick-pea, string bean, and potato shila, then it would seem like dinner. But this way, it just seems like you picked the short straw, so now you have to eat a side dish for dinner.

The Kubay Brinj ($7.50) is another case of rice on rice: in this case two thumb-sized rice dumplings stuffed with a bit of meat, then deep fried and served with rice. The Kifta Shorba ($7.95) again makes you feel like you drew the short straw: two tangerine-sized rice-dough balls stuffed with apparently unseasoned meat and served in a pool of thin tomato sauce.

My favorite entrees include the Sheik Babani ($8.25), an eggplant topped with a nicely pungent onion-laced meat stuffing (which itself is topped with a tasty, chunky tomato vegetable sauce) on a bed of the basmati rice, which is actually delicious if you're not worried that it's all you'll get to eat--each grain an independent unit of firm nuttiness. The shish kabobs ($8.25) change nightly and are also very good, well-grilled and lightly seasoned. Kurdish tea ($1.25) and baklava ($1.75) make up dessert, and the cardamom-scented brew is a perfect complement to the freshly made pastry.

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