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.
Desserts (all $5) ranged from the chocolate volcano (a raft of moist cake afloat in a pond of strawberry and Kahlua-chocolate sauces) to a jiggly coconut flan (sprinkled with macadamia nut brittle and napped with a mango-rum sauce) to a house-made banana ice cream -- served in a papaya half -- of enveloping intensity that tasted more like bananas than bananas.
Babaloo has already got most of the pieces of the puzzle in place: an appealing decor, an attentive staff, a menu that strikes a savvy balance between tradition and innovation, and a kitchen with a flair for witty presentations. Some of the dishes need a tweak or two, but the restaurant has already shown that it understands the importance of detail. Under the glow of those sexy blue lights, every nuance counts.
Babaloo, at 2030 Lombard in S.F., serves dinner Sunday through Thursday from 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 5 to 11 p.m.; call 346-5474.