1192 Forest Ave., Portland
Babylon, a restaurant wedged in the congested center of Portland’s Morrill’s Corner, serves Iraqi food in a charmingly homey atmosphere. The dining room is dolled up with long grandmotherly drapes and gold-tasseled wall hangings — endearingly earnest attempts at elegance. On weeknights you’re likely to have the place to yourself (most customers just drop by to pick up takeout). On Fridays and Saturdays Babylon offers a buffet, which attracts more diners.
Take your time with the menu, which reads like a compendium of Middle Eastern cuisine. Start with the hummus if you’re in the mood for something familiar, or, better yet, try the mosabaha, a soupy dip of yogurt and tahini dotted with whole chickpeas and served with a side of Iraqi flatbread (akin to naan) for dipping. “Sometimes I just eat it straight, with a spoon,” a waitress confessed. She’s onto something — it’s that good. The smoky eggplant dip (baba ganoush) and the dense, savory bulgur meatballs (kibbeh) are also excellent, but be prepared: the appetizers will arrive around the same time as your entrées, which will be huge.
The list of entrées doubles as a geography lesson — you’ll notice how Levantine cuisine has blended with Indian influences to the east. Along with the expected shawarma and shish kabob you’ll find chicken tikka and biriyani. The Iraqi kebab plate is similar to kebab dishes served at Lebanese and Syrian establishments: a pile of fragrant rice mixed with raisins, onions and peas alongside expertly grilled meat, with a side of fresh, lemony salad. Get this instead of the Iraqi plate, which is the same dish, but served with plain saffron rice.
Lesser-known entrées worth trying include iskender and tepsi baytinjan. Both dishes are heavier, oilier, and richer than the biriyani. Tepsi baytinjan is a casserole of eggplant, tomatoes, potatoes, onion and garlic. Iskender is especially notable for its luxuriousness: thinly sliced meat — the house recommends beef, though lamb is the traditional Turkish preparation — is basted with tomato sauce, grilled, and, finally, flooded in hot melted butter. Sides of salad and yogurt do what they can to lighten things up.
The languid pace of the meal at Babylon is also something to savor. The servers aren’t rushing to refill your water glass every few minutes, and you’ll probably have to ask for your check. It’s easy for a couple’s appetites to be sated here for under $50, especially if you show up for the weekend buffet.
The restaurant is run by several sisters, all of whom are friendly and talkative. The youngest sister isn’t old enough to work yet, but if she’s there she may sidle up to your table to chatter for a few minutes. “Do you like your food? I think you do. I can tell you like it. You’ve eaten a lot,” she says in one breath, before launching into descriptions of her own favorite foods. On another night, an enthusiastic older sister gave a couple a five-minute recap of the Turkish soap opera on the television, detailing each love affair and brush with death.
As a group of customers paid up at the counter and made their way out the door, the youngest sister was hovering nearby. “Thank you so much for coming! I hope you loved it. Please come again soon!” Hearing that, how could you not?
— Hannah Joyce McCain