800 Washington Ave. N., Minneapolis
"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.
Desserts were probably the most reliable Babalu strength. I predict the orange and coconut flan ($8.95) will start appearing on pin-up calendars near you soon. In it, a rich and eggy flan bore a festive little toupée of spiced orange peel, and the slight bitterness of the burnt orange kept the dish from being cloying. One night when I tried the pastel de limón, a concoction of potent lemon custard layered with buttery yellow cake and topped with a cream-cheese-based icing, I thought it was one of the desserts of the year. Oddly, though, a few days later it tasted stale and was very dry. But when it was good, it was stunning.
Desserts were noteworthy in price too, with many hitting nine bucks. Babalu seems to have taken an "if you can't beat 'em, head 'em off at the pass" approach to dessert sharing. But now that I think about it, it's that way at all the Parasole restaurants, from Manny's to Buca, so maybe this is just another perverse Minnesota habit that it's taken me a while to identify, like the way everyone around here seems to compare civic attributes like transportation or health care to those in northern European socialist democracies, like Sweden or Denmark, and not in oh, say, other American states.
Now that I'm rambling far afield, I guess I'll keep at it. I must confess that my one real quibble with Babalu is rather esoteric: While I feel like I sampled everything from their menu, and everything was highly competent, nothing was exquisite, nothing stirred my soul. In fact, I never really felt that the restaurant itself had a personality. To me, it mostly felt festive and efficient, not fun. That could be because whenever I was there the music was turned up to something way past decibels--kilobels? Hellabells? And particularly whenever prerecorded music with horns was played, it was like hearing needles scraped on plates. This is not relaxing.
However, I only even admit this because I am so sure Babalu will do great on its own, will delight people in need of destinations for birthday parties, sexy dates, hottie trolling, and all the other things that animate a city at night. So if you've got a cute new outfit and a $20 bill dedicated to a couple of cocktails burning a hole in your pocket, welcome to your next six months.
However, one favor: Won't you please leave Dexter home? She simply doesn't want to talk to him.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.