The ebullient owner of the newly opened
Les Babouches, in Bay Ridge, may look familiar. He is Bouabid
"Bou" Gassimi, the former proprietor of La Maison du
Couscous, a beloved Moroccan eatery on 77th Street that is still
going strong - but under new management.
From the outside, the three-month-old Les Babouches, named for Turkish heel-less slippers, resembles every other bistro on Third Avenue, with multi-paned windows and an attractive awning. Inside, it’s a casbah, with triple the seating of Gassimi’s first restaurant, saffron-colored walls, plush banquettes strewn with mirrored pillows, and Moroccan antiques on display. Yes, it’s a grander space, but not a blander one, as I feared. (I’ve loved and lost too many hole-in-the-walls that way.)
The dishes that emerge from Les Babouches’ kitchen - headed by La Maison du Couscous’ former chef, Lataba Tsoli, and the staff she trained - are as memorable as ever.
The entire range of spices used in the Moroccan kitchen comes into play in Tsoli’s appetizing salads and delicate "briwats" (phyllo dough triangles filled with meat or fish and spices). The smoky eggplant salad, sweetened with slow-cooked garlic and smeared over chewy slices of warm Moroccan semolina bread, is a lusty way to begin the meal. Spinach cooked down to a creamy disc is given tang with preserved lemon and heat from cumin; and slices of baby carrots in a buttery glaze were brightened with parsley and lemon. Beets were cooked until jammy, but retained their earthiness.
However, cubes of fresh cucumber in a lemon and olive oil dressing needed a better partner than slightly mushy, no-flavor tomatoes. Another salad of garlicky roasted green peppers, mixed with those dull tomatoes, suffered the same fate.
Break through the buttery, papery leaves of the phyllo dough, and the briwat’s fluffy centers - one filled with moist, minced chicken released the heady scent of coriander and paprika; the other, a lighter blend of shrimp and squid, was brightened with cilantro leaves and lemon - were consumed in two delicious bites.
The pastries are lovely with a cup of sweet Moroccan mint tea, poured by the waitress who held the pitcher a foot above the pretty gilded glasses. The tea-pouring experience is a little frightening, but our server was a pro who managed not to splash a drop.
This restaurant could do without a couple of nods to the largely Italian neighborhood that are included among the appetizers and desserts. One is a Mediterranean salad topped with pallid tomatoes and small cubes of flavorless Mozzarella tossed in a dressing that needed vinegar. The other is tiramisu, a banal dessert for an Italian restaurant that’s senseless after a Moroccan meal.
Moroccan chefs base their reputation on serving fine tagines, the rich aromatic stews served in a conical clay pot. Lift off the tagine’s lid, and the oven’s heat and moisture of the pot has created magic. The "tfayah," one of three chicken tagines, features a plump chicken breast so moist that juices ooze from the meat when it’s cut. The breast is served atop a compote of raisins cooked down to a sherry-like richness, luscious strands of caramelized onions and chick peas that break up the dish’s sweetness with their nutty taste. It’s a stunning dish. Lamb and fish versions are offered, too.
On this night, spicy merguez (garlicky lamb sausages) were served a little under-heated, muting the full impact of their spices. A side of Moroccan rice mixed with slivered almonds and golden raisins, lightly scented with orange blossom essence, was pleasant but a bit dry. Ditto for grilled slices of eggplant and carrots.
While it’s not listed under desserts, ask for a plate of traditional Moroccan cookies; they’re a better choice than the tiramisu. On the plate are deep-fried, honey-dipped, twisted cookie called "chabakia" that remind me of funnel cake. They’re crunchy, pleasingly oily and the honey lends a bright, clover-like scent.
I also love Les Babouches’ "kaab el ghazal," or gazelle’s horns, a crescent-shaped cookie filled with almonds and flavored with cinnamon, sugar and orange blossom water.
The lemon, mango and coconut gelato are not a bad way to end a meal, either.
The tea-drinking men I remember from La Maison du Couscous’ dining room, who lingered outside that restaurant talking for hours, were missing when I dined at Les Babouches. Here, local couples and families have replaced them; and there’s a full bar where one can order a "Morocini" (martinis made with mango juice).
Sure, the surface of Les Babouches is glitzy, but beneath it, Gassimi’s chef is turning out dishes straight from her heart.
Les Babouches (7803 Third Ave. at 78th Street in Bay Ridge) accepts MasterCard and Visa. Entrees: $12-$17. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner Tuesdays through Sundays. Closed Mondays. Entrees: $12-$17. For more information, call (718) 833-1700.