Save for the odd communion wafer and drop of dodgy wine, churches aren’t known as temples of gastronomic excellence. That was until Bah Humbug and Bug Bar took over the crypt of St Matthew’s Church and wowed punters with a conscience with their extensive veggie menu.
A few years on, the place started to look shabby and the punters complained that they didn’t like condensation dripping on to their Mock Duck – so a complete refurb was called for. Babalou is the result.
“Mmm, Moroccan, can’t wait,” said my dining companion as we descended into the basement, past the bouncers. It’s all white walls, flickering candles, ornate ironwork screens and glass lanterns – so it certainly looks Moroccan.
The menu though is not, save for an Arabic platter and a tagine, as Babalou has kept the international aspirations of its predecessor. Fair enough – but warning bells always start to ring when I see a dish on a menu that takes longer to say than it does to eat. Same alarm bells ring whenever the ubiquitous chilli jam is listed.
So it was with trepidation that we ordered our starters: Vodka Beetroot Cured Salmon, Potato and Radish Salad, Dill and Lemon Cream (£5.65) and Pan-Fried Baby Squid, Chinese Broccoli and Chilli Jam (£5.95).
The squid was a curious affair – tender but there was just so much going on on the plate that the resulting taste was rather murky. Ditto the salmon salad – delicious fish fighting against all the other flavours.
Main courses were also a mouthful in more ways that one. Monkfish, chorizo paella, deep breath, green beans, spinach and basil cream (£12.95) was divine with a perfectly cooked hunk of fish and creamy paella. Seared swordfish Steak, Sag Aloo potato, cucumber and mint dressing (£11.95) was another fantastically cooked bit of fish, complete with a crunchy poppadom on top. But again, both dishes had too many flavours scrapping with each other.
The trouble with fusion is that for it to work, everything has to be spot-on, and it’s a rare chef that can actually achieve this: otherwise you end up with confusion. There’s a talented chef here but the menu needs stripping back.
There’s an unusual wine list, which starts at a reasonable £11 and goes up to £35 and cocktails are also available – although a Mojito needed more booze, less ice.
So, with a menu that reads like the inside of Phileas Fogg’s gut, a predominantly Italian wine list, Moroccan décor and a spooky looking crypt, Babalou is a strange concoction. But it’s an enjoyable one – it’s atmospheric, staff are friendly and with a bit of restraint menu-wise, they should be on to a winner, and the flock should soon be back in droves.