Serene scene Babette's Cafe still a fine feast for the senses
Viridescent apple martinis, boom-chica-boom-boom blaring over your head, loud voices drilling holes in your ear drums -- sometimes you just want to escape from the scenester rigamarole that pervades so many of Atlanta's restaurants. Sometimes, too, the urge arises to seek out a restaurant that serves uncomplicated, even-tempered fare to complement a catch-up session with an old chum.
These dual desires recently brought me back to Babette's Cafe. I hadn't been to visit this stalwart Inman Park institution since it first moved up the street two years ago to its current quarters in a renovated house with a glorious back patio.
Things haven't changed much, which is heartening. The faux-stucco walls still have the craggily, swirly look of caramel frosting spread over a sheet cake. Small rugs and copper pans with obscure uses serve as unobtrusive ornamentation. The deep brown and blackened floorboards have that rustic farmhouse appeal.
Much of the food looks familiar as well. Chef Marla Adams saves most of her culinary ambition for her renowned re-enactments of meals from the films Babette's Feast and Big Night. Several of the dishes on the menu I remember from my first trip to the restaurant in the mid-'90s. And they still hold up. Mussels steamed in white wine with pureed strawberries and a hint of serrano peppers is still sop-it-up good. "Wow," said an out-of-town friend who'd never tried them before. "You can really taste the strawberry, but it works!"
Fried oysters served on a dill biscuit is another old standby. The biscuit has been dry and tough in the past, but on a recent visit is rich and flaky. The cool cucumber sauce blobbed over the whole concoction quickly kills the crispness of the oysters' crust, but the combination of flavors has a wonderfully odd and symbiotic rightness.
One of my favorite quirks of Adams' cuisine is her love of tarragon, a woefully overlooked herb in this country. Piroshkis of pork and veal are undistinguished little morsels on their own, but dunk them in their accompanying tarragon butter sauce and whoa! A mouthful of silken herbaceous creaminess. A doorknob would taste good with this stuff poured over it. I also detect tarragon lurking among the chopped herbs over the Alaskan halibut. The fish is nicely crusty, and the mustard vinaigrette with which it is served has a complex tang that resonates on the palate with an almost horseradish-like zip.
The kitchen, though, is not immune to clunkers. It's getting late in the year for grilled corn chowder with crabmeat. Though the sprinkling of crab is sweet, the very yellow nuggets of corn are overly chewy and the soup as a whole lacks spark. And a special of beef stroganoff is a major disappointment. Gray gravy cloaks flabby meat with mushrooms and onions over shoestring potatoes. The whole thing lacks verve. God forbid I paraphrase Emeril, but bump up the seasonings and this dish would be a whole lot more satisfying.
Ye ole pile of shoestring potatoes also appears next to two herb-crusted lamb chops, a competent but dull composition that inspired me to start sampling my tablemates' food to break the boredom. If hearty is what you're after, go for the beef tenderloin or the duck. The tenderloin with Gorgonzola sauce, "white puree" (read: horseradish mashed potatoes) and spicy onion rings is a Babette's signature, and it's still a smart-witted French twist on an American meat-and-potatoes staple.
Roast duck is my happiest recent discovery here. Two lacquered legs with crackly skin and moist, earthy meat are sauced with demi-glace and an autumnal, not-too-sweet compote of apples, rutabagas and walnuts. More exquisitely seasonal offerings like this, please. (A glass of the Cambria Pinot Noir is lovely with the duck, by the way.)
Almost full? You gotta try at least one of the desserts. My money is on the dried cherry tart with the dense, delicious almond crust. The plump cherries spill out of the pastry and make a luscious mess on the plate. Warm chocolate bread pudding with homemade banana ice cream has been on the menu forever but is as decadent as ever.
Brunch on Babette's patio, overlooking a diminished but steadfast wooded area, feels marvelously grown-up. It's a good place to introduce friends to your new paramour or recover from Saturday night escapades. I like that the menu offers mostly savory items -- quiche Lorraine, a Gallic-accented chicken salad with tomatoes and haricot vert and downy omelets with simple ingredients like mushrooms or leeks and gruyere. If you require a sugar rush, you'll get it with the thick French toast, gloppy with bananas, walnuts and caramel.
The service, I suspect, is one of the factors that has fueled the longtime popularity of this restaurant. One server, Ginny, who I remember from previous visits, embodies genuine warmth. She speaks so thoughtfully and kindly to us, at first I thought my cover had been blown. But no, I see her lean in and chat with every table in the same maternal way. I wish there were more servers like her.
After a dinner at Babette's, while you're feeling satiated from a civilized meal and waiting for the valet guy to retrieve your car, cock your head and listen. Hear that? Crickets. Ah, it sure is nice to have a little peace and calm in the big city now and then.