Blue Light Special

Babaloo does tapas the Cuban way

Babaloo, although situated on Lombard Street, amid a hodgepodge of drab motels with neon "vacancy" signs and a potpourri of ethnic restaurants, really belongs to the Chestnut Street scene a block away, where everyone is 28 with perfect teeth and drives a leased BMW, the better to bring on parking Armageddon. A stylish new faux-sandstone facade gives the restaurant's exterior the look of a Del Taco (though without the requisite necklace of asphalt for cars) or a stray chunk of the Home Depot colossus in Colma. Inside, the look is upmarket peasant, with a lot of lacquered wood and, suspended from the high ceiling, two rows of inverted blue cones, each with a suggestively protrusive bulb, like the pistil of a lusty flower.

We looked up at the light fixtures as if studying Rorschach ink blots, trying to decide if there was something erotic about them. (Tentative consensus: Yes.) Babaloo, which opened just a few weeks ago, has an easy decorative sensuality that nicely matches the mood of the young, exuberant crowd and the menu itself, which gives a Cuban spin to tapas.

Tapas: food for the age of the short attention span and the channel surfer; also for the convivial. If plates of tapas come and go in a blur -- a bite of this one, a nibble or two of that one, and on to the next -- they also stimulate conversation, being less demanding and grave than big plates of important food, and easier to share. Tapas promote communal intimacy; the plates always make their way around the table, and everyone has a taste.

A possible downside is that the bustling sociability of tapas culture invites culinary mediocrity -- if everyone is talking and there are too many dishes to keep track of, a bad one here and there can go unnoticed -- but chef Stephen Davis' kitchen instead brought off most of its brightly conceived selections with visual flair. At times preparations were uneven, and the occasional dish seemed to be lacking a final ingredient, but the food was never seriously out of tune.

The prawns ($7), for instance, were handsomely butterflied before being sauteed. They were served in a pungent sauce of garlic, paprika, and sea salt that, on one visit, could have used a little thickening, or some bread for mopping up. On a subsequent visit, both problems were solved: The sauce had been thickened enough to cling to the prawns, and a basket of bread was kept constantly refreshed.

The papas fritas ($4) combined a healthy pile of crisp, flash-fried new-potato quarters with two dipping sauces. The tropical ketchup was sweet and incomplete, as if it needed another ingredient (such as cayenne pepper, or Tabasco?). But the chilpotle aioli, a lush mix of smoke and cream, closed the potatoes' sensuous circle.

The fried calamari ($6) again brought out the chilpotle aioli in its supporting role, paired this time with a lime-jalapeno salsa. The squid was tender inside its crunchy coating, and the salsa had enough citrusy zip to set off the aioli's richness.

Three small lamb chops ($7) were served in a dark sauce of red wine, oregano, cumin, and roasted garlic. The meat was buttery-tender and nicely pink inside, but the sauce tasted too strongly of wine. The well-browned garlic cloves, on the other hand, had that caramelly sweetness brought on by roasting; we nibbled them like peanuts from a dish at a cocktail party, and hoped the breath police would stay away.

The salmon cakes ($6) tasted fishy. They were gorgeously presented, however, each golden disk seated on a slice of tomato and topped with a dollop of chili remoulade and a pale-green chunk of avocado.

Our server had assured us that the tamale ($7) -- a corn husk stuffed with lobster meat and fresh corn and bathed in a lobster-tomato broth -- was a showstopper, but it was the only true disappointment on the menu. Both lobster and corn were sweet, and there was nothing on the plate to make a contrast. The tamale even looked bland: pale yellows and greens, with just the shyest flash of orange from the lobster. Some mild tomato salsa (with a hint of chilpotle) would have helped.

Jewellike tuna medallions ($7) were cut from a piece of ahi that had been expertly seared around the edges. After being chilled, the slices were arranged in a domino pattern beside a tangy and colorful relish of diced red and yellow peppers. The fish tasted fresh and clean, and the dish wasn't overbusy.

The sweetness of sherry dominated the grilled portobello mushroom ($5). Grilling gave the big portobello a tender, steaklike quality, but the dish needed a tart or sour flavor -- such as mustard or ginger -- to rein in the cloyingness of the wine and fully develop the flavor of the mushroom. Still, there are few vegetables that can so convincingly stand in for a piece of meat: Vegetarians, take note.

One of the best dishes, roast chicken ($10), wasn't even a tapa but a main course. A half-chicken with well-crisped skin rested on a bed of fabulous chili mashed potatoes; these could well end up being the restaurant's signature preparation. (They'd also make great croquetas.) On the far edge of the plate was a salad of pickled onion, green beans, and julienned red bell peppers in a pleasantly tangy vinaigrette.

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