Mojito A-Go-Go

Downtown's newest Pan-Latin restaurant feels like a week In Cancun

Babalu Restaurant
800 Washington Ave. N., Minneapolis
612.746.3158

"Where are you? We're in the bathroom. No, don't come meet us. We'll come meet you. Okay, okay. But first: Who did you bring? Ohmigod! Why did you bring Dexter! It's supposed to be a girls' night! Okay, okay. I'm just not gonna talk to him. But whatev--what do you mean you're in the bathroom? We're in the bathroom! No, not Mel's Beauty Bar--we're at Babalu! That's the funniest thing I've ever heard. Ohmigod! Just come here, okay okay okay..."

Such was the conversation I overheard one night in the bathroom at Babalu, a restaurant and nightspot in the Warehouse District of Minneapolis which has quickly become the hottest thing since glitter met eye shadow--at least to judge by my most recent visits, when the place was as full as a Brazilian bikini, and nearly as intriguing.

Babalu, in case you have been visiting the wrong bathrooms with the hapless Dexter, is the Caribbean, Latin American, and Spanish restaurant and nightspot that a pair of Parasole Restaurant Holdings veterans, Alfonso Menendez and Fernando Santa, opened in January with a longtime music and event promoter, Terrence Large. It's a big, splashy, 200-seat destination/grown-up party restaurant, along the lines of Parasole spots like Oceanaire or Chino Latino.

The lessons of Parasole were well learned: Like those places, the most memorable part of Babalu is the way the outside world seems to fall away once you're inside. It feels like you're in Las Vegas, Cancun, or some warm-weather resort city. Wine-red walls, dim lights, throbbing live music, and lazily circling ceiling fans that look plucked from 1930s Havana make the place feel like a nightclub. And once you put a beachy cocktail on the table it feels entirely like vacation; perhaps a caipirinha ($7) made with Brazilian sugar-cane liquor cachaça, or purplish sangria in a tall, footed glass with plenty of fresh fruit?

The food at Babalu very much reminded me of that which you'd get in any good resort hotel, with lots of seafood, beef, and cream sauces. Sometimes the dishes can be glamorous enough to photograph--one night a grouper filet wrapped in potato slices and fried until it was a crisp golden packet was placed in the middle of a plate decorated with white and scarlet sauces in such a way that the fish looked like a jewelry box set on marbled endpapers. As a whole, the grouper ($24.95) was creamy, mild, and thoroughly charming, and though I couldn't detect any habanero in the advertised habanero-cream sauce, I think most locals will prefer it that way.

Another of my favorites, a home-style, plain, peasant dish of Brazilian virado--basically shredded pot roast with collard greens and tomatoes ($19.95)--was made restaurant-fancy by ringing the bed of rice it sat on with a yuca-cream sauce (though how a cream sauce can taste of yuca is beyond me) and a yuca croquette. Odd as it sounds, it worked pretty well, as the rice and cream made a sort of instantaneous rice pudding on the plate.

As in a hotel, too, though, seafood dishes were more about mass reproducibility than delicacy or freshness. I tried the El Babalu vuelve a la vida, a $14.95 seafood cocktail, but thought that the dish of squid, scallops, shrimp, and such tasted mostly ketchup-like and defrosted. Clams were served in a cooked-down, unspicy garlic-wine sauce ($8.95); salpicón de marisco ($10.95), another seafood cocktail, was filled with green olives and citrus zing, but still the dish itself was muddled, everything tasting the same, the way a salmon salad might.

The menu is mostly tapas, appetizers, sides and salads, along with fourteen or so entrées. I think for the first time in my life I can honestly say skip the appetizers and head for the entrées.The Cuban pork roast ($14.95), for example, was a savory combination of spice-rubbed, roasted pork sliced and sauced, served on perfectly al dente rice with black beans. It had all the markings of being made by a chef who knew the dish as intimately as anyone ever could: The pork was still crisp and had those crackling crusts of fat that make pork delectable; the sauce was rich and potent; it was perfect. Yet meanwhile, the Huachinanga a la Veracruzana ($27.95) was merely a whole fish that tasted freezer-dehydrated and was deep-fried and covered with a reduction of tomatoes and green olives. To me it seemed like a whole fish for people who had no basis of comparison for whole fish.

Eh. Then again, I think I was the only wet blanket in the joint, the only one who cared. I think most people were there for the whole experience, and the whole is filled with fun, flair, pop, cocktails, and throbbing drums. Babalu is competently, definitely a good time.

As part of that whole, the wine list does nice work, especially in the Babalu-appropriate fields of the Iberian peninsula and South America. You could learn more about Argentinean and Chilean wine in a week here than in a month of sorting duds at the liquor store, and the chance to taste something like a little-seen crisp and grassy Portuguese vinho verde made by Soalheiro ($11 a glass, $32 a bottle) adds a nice dimension to the foods on offer. Wines are a little pricey--ooh, that telltale bottle of Cristalino cava for $27, when it usually retails for $7 to $10.

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