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With flavorful Moroccan dishes, Baboush brings Casablanca to Uptown

Baboush-lamb-kebab

MMMM... STICK-MEAT The lamb kebabs at Baboush are remarkably tender, and made even better by the tomato relish and juicy raisins in the saffron basmati rice. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

Just a quick glance at Baboush — damask bolsters on the banquettes, invitingly overstuffed ottomans, tapestries clinging to the stuccoed walls with Persian tile behind the bar, all while Arabic music plays in the background — and you’re immediately caught up in its distinctively lush Moroccan atmosphere, without being drowned in clichés. The front wall of windows looks out on a grassy field along the distaff corner of the West Village, providing tons of light during the day and a twinkling calm at night. All that’s missing are Nazis coercing Rick Blaine while Sam plays “As Time Goes By.”

Dallas’ recent flirtation with Middle Eastern influences — from Samar to Kush to Fadi’s and more — is a welcome addition to a culinary landscape dominated by steakhouses, taquerias and, of late, Asian bistros. Baboush’s execution of the food helps validate the trend.

Certainly the kitchen doesn’t scrimp when it comes to forward flavors, a point of view that may catch inexperienced palates unawares. Take the spinach “cigars” ($7) — basically thick spanakopita tubes with goat cheese. My dining companion wanted more cheesiness to supersede the citrusy tang, though that didn’t bother me. But be prepared for lemony accents in many of the dishes.
Their babaganoush is garnished with pomegranate seeds, which don’t add much flavor but make for a nice presentation. While slightly sour, the lemon bite is nothing compared to the dolmas, which push citrus through the roof. That’s not a downside in my book, though my guest, unaccustomed to the staples of Mediterranean cuisine, found it excessive. (A greater issue with the dolmas was an inconsistent texture: leathery one time, mushy another.)

One of the things to love about Baboush, though, is the boldness of its flavors. Case in point: Mergueze ($9), a lamb sausage that’s as spicy as a Mexican soap opera. It packs a wallop, though the effect is insidiously cumulative, growing heat on your tongue with every bite. If comes with a Moroccan tomato relish (also available on its own as an appetizer spread, $5), which comes as delightful surprise. Thicker than catsup but salsa-like in its consistency, the acid from the tomatoes and chunks of garlic are softened with a hard-spice cinnamon savoriness as well as a hint of sweetness. It’s a complex dip, both familiar and unique.

I’ve often cast a jaundiced eye at kebabs: Stick-meats are hard to get right, especially if more than one type of food is on the skewer. That’s not a problem here, where a single protein per stick allows even cooking. That was true of the shrimp kebabs ($12), well-spiced and not overcooked; the lamb kebabs ($14) were an even greater success — the meat incredibly tender and deftly seasoned, given a soothing finish by the juicy raisins in the saffron basmati rice.

The falafel ($7) is Egyptian-style (a green interior), with sesames covering the moist, crisp patties; and the spiced-beef kefta burger ($8, available at lunch) gets a final push from the smooth dipping sauce.

Although limited, the dessert menu is a definite attraction. The baklava here ($7) is among the best I’ve had in town: crisp but deeply saturated in honey with a great crunch of nuts. And the ganache-filled ice cream ($9) — a mini-bombe, sort of an exotic ice cream sandwich — was entirely indulgent.

It’s too bad service, while adequate, has failed to impress. On our first visit, we asked a few questions of our waiter (fairly uncomplicated ones about Middle Eastern food) that he couldn’t readily answer; on another visit, we were given lunch menus at dinner; on other, there were (short) delays in having the entree order taken and getting all the apps out. I’ll tolerate that in a shared-plate restaurant like this, where breezy hospitality trumps minor glitches. Baboush might not be the Casbah, or even Casablanca, but it is something better: It brings that sensibility to us.

Baboush, 3636 McKinney Ave., Ste. 160. Open daily for lunch and dinner. BaboushDallas.com.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 2, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas