Heading to Babani’s, the first Kurdish restaurant in the U.S., (and the only one that we know of locally) has always been like accepting an invitation into someone's home.
The menu is a condensed list of dishes that would probably be typical of a Kurdish home-cooked meal: simple but highly flavorful soups and salads, spiced and ground meat filled dumplings, rice, vegetables and lentils playing the lead to smaller portions of chicken and beef.
The mostly landlocked area inhabited by the Kurds is encircled by Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, so it’s tempting to lump the cooking into the category of Middle Eastern, but Babani’s kitchen very much stands on its own.
Start with the dowjic soup, which reminds me of a thinner though more powerful Greek avgolemono. Its devourable chicken broth is made lively and pungent with lemon, pepper, and oregano. Chase the bits of chicken and rice around the bottom -- they’re like the final bits of cereal that finally inspire you to pick up the bowl and drink.
If you’re any fan of moussaka, turn to the Sheik Babani, sort of a dome of eggplant cooked until silky and then filled with spiced ground beef. A lagoon of shimmering tomato sauce laps up against it, giving you a chance to ladle some over every bite.
But for proof of Babani’s singular character, check out the kubay brinj, a dumpling dough made of rice that gets pinched around spiced ground beef. It's then fried to the familiar and satisfying texture of the crisp raft of rice that forms on the bottom of the pan. A little tomato sauce clinches it in an uncomplicated finish.
Babani’s also does good things with grilled meats, ground and pressed into plank-like kebabs, kibbeh-style, but sturdier.
Virtually everything gets served with simple and familiar little salads and garnishes of sliced cucumber, tomato, onion, yogurt sauce, and little dollops of tabbouleh.
The new space is about double the size of its former, cozy and somewhat tucked away location in downtown St. Paul. The new dining room is airy and bright (perhaps a little too bright) and charmingly decked out in tapestries and lanterns.
They’re due to receive approval on a beer and wine license sometime in the coming weeks. They’ll only serve wine by the bottle, and not the glass, and after eating here, that seems like just the thing.
The best way to enjoy Babani's 2 would be with a big group of friends and family. You'll dine the way this style of cooking demands, passing around little pots of things, big platters of meat, glossy daubs of sauces, splashing sips of wine in glasses until everyone has had their fill.
And now, there’s a lot more space in which to do just that.
Next year, Babani’s will be celebrating 20 years in the restaurant business, a very impressive feat for a place quite literally in a class all by itself.
32 E. Fillmore Ave., St. Paul