544 St. Peter St., St. Paul, 651-602-9964
Review published March 2005
BABANI’S IS A BIT like the Kurdish people scattered throughout the Middle East: hard to track down. It’s right off I-94’s 10th Street exit, but St. Peter Street is a one-way, so you have to make three lefts around the block in order to drive up to—and maybe still miss—the restaurant’s inconspicuous front door.
Babani’s claims to be the first and only Kurdish restaurant in the United States (it’s the only one listed on the Kurdish National Congress of North America’s website), and it’s probably also the only restaurant with a stained glass peacock greeting visitors in the entry. Stepping into Babani’s feels like you’ve arrived in another country—or a bohemian Dinkytown eatery, at least—as opposed to a quiet corner of downtown St. Paul. The main dining room has just four booths and a handful of tables; some walls are painted pinkish-orange, others blue and green. They’re covered with photographs of Kurdish life, with tapestries and handmade shoes and a glittering decorative costume that’s poised as if in mid-dance.
The drinks are also quintessentially Kurdish. The lemonade is an iced tea–colored, honey-sweet drink, made with whole lemons to retain the bitter aftertaste of the rind. The mastaw—plain yogurt thinned with water and seasoned with dill—is described with the warning “perhaps too authentic for some,” but its savory sour taste seemed to enhance the flavors of many of the dishes.
Babani’s appetizers and sides share elements with other Middle Eastern cuisines: crumbled feta cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, and olives are paired with thick, spongy bread. The parsley-heavy tabouleh and a cucumber, yogurt, and dill jaajic are as fresh and tasty as any, but it’s the soups that set Babani’s apart. Particularly the dowjic, a tangy, peppery broth made with lemon and yogurt, reminiscent of Thai hot and sour soup with bits of chicken and rice. Move over, chicken noodle.
Some entrées may be familiar to ethnic food eaters, such as dolma and biryani, but the Sheik Babani is unique. It’s a grilled eggplant bowl filled with ground beef and accompanied by tomato sauce and basmati rice. It was good, but the smoky grilled flavor imparted a slightly burnt taste, and the other components could have used less salt and more spice. The Kubey Brinj were excellent: rice dumplings stuffed with seasoned ground beef, fried to crisp the exterior, and sliced diagonally. If you are someone whose chopsticks aggressively pursue the crunchy bits of rice stuck to the Korean bi bim bap pot or you enjoy Japanese roasted rice tea—that dry, earthy flavor of late autumn sun—try the Kubey Brinj.
Babani’s doesn’t serve much in the way of desserts—just flan and a dry baklava that’s overpowered with cardamom. And though the place seems to clear out by 8 p.m. on weeknights, leaving just a few lingerers with cups of Kurdish tea, it’s definitely worth searching out.