Babani's (St. Paul, MN)
If you took some ideas from Indian cuisine, a bit of Greek cookery, and a handful of dietary traits from around the Mediterranean, you'd end up with something that looks and tastes a lot like Kurdish food. You'd find flat bread and more vegetables than meat, all with lots of flavor but not much spice.
Babani's claims to be the first Kurdish restaurant in the United States, and we're not going to argue. It's certainly been a downtown St. Paul institution since it opened in 1997. It's in a charming space: two small rooms tucked away on the first floor of an old apartment building, decorated with Kurdish art and artifacts, and lots of framed restaurant reviews and awards.
Obviously, lots of people agree that the food is delicious.
We recommend ordering several appetizers, to start with a lot of little bites. Jaajic is a salad of cucumbers, garlic, and dill in a yogurt sauce. The tabouli salad is excellent, as is silopi salad of cubed cucumbers, tomatoes, onion, olives, and parsley in an oil-and-lemon dressing.
And definitely order soup. We loved the dowjic, a peppery chicken soup with rice, accented with lemon juice and basil, and a hint of yogurt. It's tangy and delicious, an excellent way to wake up your taste buds. The other soups are also good: the onion-flavored niskena with lentils, olive oil and spices; and mahagic with chicken and vegetables.
There's goodness to be had in the entrees, too.
Our favorite is probably the chicken tawa. The chicken is sautéed in lemon and spices, and then baked in layers of potato, green pepper, onion and dried lemon.
We also liked the kubey brinj: rice dumplings stuffed with spiced ground beef and vegetables, and then fried to a delicious crunch. Kubay sawar are basically the same, only with wheat dumplings. They're not as good, but they have a current-events twist: the menu says that the dish was first popularized in what is now Mosul, Iraq.
Don't bother ordering the biryani. It's not bad, but there are far better choices.
Babani's has a large variety of vegetarian options, including dolmas and biryani. We especially liked the bakla, a nicely spiced sauté of mushrooms, broccoli, zucchini and onion. Also consider the nineveh, another sauté of mushrooms and tomatoes. Meat eaters can add beef or chicken to either dish.
As in most ethnic restaurants, portions are large. And as in most ethnic restaurants, it's far more fun to share everything family-style.
Don't forget bread. Kurdish flatbread is called nareen, and comes with feta, oregano and garlic. You can order it as an appetizer, but we recommend ordering it with dinner. It's great for sopping up sauce or just eating plain.
Desserts are minimal, just flan and baklava, but be sure to order the Kurdish lemonade. It's made with the whole lemon, not just the pulp, and the rind gives it an interesting iced-tea-like taste.
All in all, Babani's is one of the downtown St. Paul choicest spots for lunch or dinner. It's fine alone, but it's a great meal with a group.