Babalu

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011 at 2:26 PM

I eat out all of the time. One would think that a person who eats for a living might become jaded after a while. Restaurants come and go, trends fade, palates change, but good food is good food and I love the restaurant business.

I enjoy the business behind the business and I certainly love the food side of the restaurant business. That is why I get so excited when I see someone step out on a ledge and try something new and different. No one has taken a larger culinary leap than Bill Latham and Al Roberts with their new concept, Babalu in the Fondren neighborhood of Jackson.

I don’t know when I’ve been more excited about a new restaurant opening that wasn’t one of my own. I ate there last week while in Jackson on business, and drove my family back to Jackson yesterday for a small plate tapas and tacos lunch with friends.

Small plates are big these days. And Babalu is spot on.

The Spanish have been eating tapas for decades. The first time I ever ate tapas was in the early 1990s at Rich Melman’s Café Ba Ba Re Ba in Chicago. Melman is to restaurants what Trammel Crow was to real estate. In my opinion, Bill Latham is the Melman of Mississippi. Along with his longtime business partner, Al Roberts they have given Mississippi such tried-and-true concepts such as Amerigo, Sundancer, and Char.

A few years ago, they sold all of their restaurants and set out to play golf. Then they became the statewide franchisor for Five Guys. Three restaurants, and several more to come, later, I don’t think they’re playing as much golf as they had originally planned— good for us. These two guys know how to operate a restaurant.

The look and feel in Babalu is neo-hipster big-city industrial and is a breath of fresh air in this state. My favorite small-plate hipster concept, Chino Latino, in Minnneapolis fuses South American and Asian cuisines. At Bablu the style is mostly Mexican, slightly Spanish, with a healthy dose of the Mississippi Delta thrown in for good measure.

Babalu gives off a hipster vibe smack dab in the middle of Jackson’s ever-expanding hipster neighborhood of Fondren. But seated next to the ski-cap-and-white-Ray-Bans clad hipsters are tables filled with North Jackson/Madison money.

The food is spot on. On my first visit, the ceviche was made from scallops and was flawless. On the second visit, shrimp was they main protein in the ceviche, and the entire dish didn’t seem to work as one full, tight unit, but it was good nonetheless.

Chef David Ferris has done an excellent job developing the menu. The aforementioned scallop ceviche, along with tableside guacamole and a short rib preparation over Delta Grind grits would have all scored perfect 10s had they been Olympic events.

Actually, the short rib was so good, I ordered seconds (which is quite a leap, especially since we were in the middle of an eight-course bacchanalia).

The service is good. As with most small-plate concepts, food arrives as it is prepared. I love that, because I am into communal eating and sharing plates. Babalu is all about the complete experience that is sharing a meal.

There’s a lady in the back making tortillas by hand and everything is fresh and prepared ala minute. Even the bar mixers are fresh— freshly squeezed juices all the way around.

I ordered pork belly tacos and a vegetarian taco made with Portobello mushrooms on the first visit. Despite my love for all things porcine, and as good as the pork belly tacos were, I ordered the Portobello taco again on the second visit—excellent.

Ultimately, the key to any restaurant’s success is management. Atmosphere and trendy food is great, but if the place is inconsistent with service and food it won’t last long. No worries, here. Babalu is in excellent hands with Latham and Roberts at the helm.

I remember when the two opened Char in Jackson’s Highland Village. Opening a restaurant is one of the most stressful things one will ever do. I was there on night number two and Latham was just cruising around the dining room, stress-free. Amazing. Both times I have visited Bablu, he is doing the same thing. Folks, that speaks volumes about the organizational skills and management abilities of Latham and Roberts.

There is still a little bit of tweaking to do. I never once heard any music during either one of my visits, and music is big with hipsters It’s big with me, too. Also, there are two desserts on the menu, which is fine— cheesecake bars and crème brulee— personally, I would like to see a lighter option, maybe a fruit finish, as an offering.

Nevertheless, what they offered, they nailed. All hail, Babalu.

Sesame-Soy Cabbage Stir Fry

1/4 cup peanut oil or vegetable oil
1 Tbl minced fresh ginger
1 Tbl minced garlic
1/4 tsp crushed red chili flakes

1/2 cup red onion, peeled and julienne
3/4 cup carrot, julienne
3/4 cup red bell pepper julienne
1 head bok choy cut leaves crosswise into 1/2” thick slices (approx 5-6 cups cut)
6 green onions, trimmed, cut diagonally into 1-inch pieces
1 1/2 cups fresh snow peas
1/2 head Napa cabbage, leaves cut crosswise into 1-inch-wide strips (about 3-4
Cups cut)
2/3 cup good-quality chicken stock or broth or vegetable broth
1/4 cup soy sauce
1Tbl cornstarch, dissolved in 1 tablespoon cold water
2 Tbl toasted sesame seeds

Heat a large wok over medium heat. Add 2 tablespoons of the oil. When the oil is hot, add the ginger, garlic, and chili flakes and stir-fry just until they are aromatic, about 30 seconds. Scoop out the aromatics and set them aside.
Add the remaining oil to the wok. Turn the heat up to high. When the oil is hot, add the julienne carrots, red peppers and red onion pieces and stir-fry until they turn glossy and bright, 1 to 2 minutes.
Add the bok choy. Stir-fry 1 to 2 minutes more.
Add the scallion pieces and snow peas. Continue stir-frying until they are bright green and glossy, 1 to 2 minutes more.
Add the Napa cabbage along with about 1/3 cup of the hot stock and the reserved aromatics. Continue stir-frying until the vegetables are all tender-crisp, about 2 minutes more. Add the remaining stock, soy sauce, and cornstarch mixture and stir-fry until the vegetables all look lightly glazed with sauce, about 1 minute more.
Transfer the stir-fried vegetables to a heated serving dish. Garnish toasted sesame seeds and serve immediately.