I have recently enjoyed some memorable lunches while dining with friends and family members at Babylon Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Grill in Johnson City.
I first dined at Babylon back in early summer of 2010, shortly after the restaurant opened for business. I was excited to find a restaurant offering authentic Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine in Johnson City, and I am glad that the eatery seems to have established a niche for itself in the local dining scene.
On one recent visit, a server welcomed us to select any available table and then proceeded to take our beverage orders. My friend chose to try the Hot Cardamom Tea, a sweet drink spiced with cardamom pods. Other beverages available include soft drinks as well as Arabic juices and sodas.
Our server also engaged us with her friendly and personable manner, sharing recommendations with us and answering our questions.
Babylon Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Grill is not a large restaurant, but the dining area does offer several tables. The green and white walls display three oil paintings on black velvet depicting Middle Eastern scenes. Thriving house plants arranged along the windowsills in the dining area added to the casual, relaxing atmosphere. Completing the ambience was the playing or recorded Middle Eastern pop music.
I have sampled several of the restaurant’s appetizers, both cold and hot meal-starters, during my visits to Babylon. Options available on the menu Hummus, Baba Ghannouj, Cabbage Salad, Falafel, Tabouli and Samboosak, or Burag, which is a mix of ground beef blended with onions, parsley and pine nuts that is wrapped in a pancake, deep-fried and served with a creamy, refreshing dipping sauce.
The Samboosak happened to be the appetizer I shared recently with a friend while enjoying a Sunday afternoon lunch at Babylon. The four stuffed appetizers reminded me of both Chinese eggrolls and Mexican chimichangas. They were definitely savory, well-seasoned morsels that my dining companion and I shared while looking over the menu.
I’ve tried several of the salads, as well, including the Eggplant Salad during a visit to the restaurant with my mother. She chose to have a bowl of the Adas, or Crushed Lentil Soup, as I enjoyed my salad.
The Eggplant Salad consisted of diced eggplant, cucumbers, tomatoes, pickles and parsley mixed with spices, olive oil and lemon juice. This tangy, refreshing salad is served on a plate encircled with an arrangement of pita chips.
The Lentil Soup at Babylon is an aromatic, hearty and flavorful one, made from crushed lentils and enhanced with some pasta noodles and seasonings including garlic and cumin.
On Fridays, Babylon offers Dolma, or Stuffed Grape Leaves. The version at Babylon offers stuffed grape leaves accompanied by onions, collard greens. zucchini and tomatoes. The leaves are filled with rice and beef or lamb, as well as vegetables, lemon juice, tomato paste and spices.
Of course, the stars of the menu are the entrees, which include a good sampling of of lamb, beef and chicken dinners as well as a selection of sandwiches and stews. On Mondays, the restaurant also offers Lasagna with a White Bechemel Sauce.
During my most recent visits, I have enjoyed the Tepsi of Eggplant, a stew of eggplant, potatoes, green peppers, tomatoes and onions, served with a potato curry and Biyani rice, as well as the Mixed Kabob, which offers three skewers — one of beef, another of chicken and also one of lamb — served with rice and fresh vegetables. I loved each of the skewers, but the tender, marinated beef cubes, grilled and seasoned to melt-in-your-mouth perfection, were my favorites. I also enjoyed the skewer of roasted ground lamb and the morsels of well-seasoned chicken.
The English translation of kabob typically refers more specifically to shish kebab, or meat grilled and served on skewers. The kitchen staff at Babylon helpfully removes the skewers before serving the meat on a piece of pita bread served with sliced cucumbers, a pickle spear, tomatoes and paprika-dusted onion slices.
My dining companion also discovered a new favorite — Babylon’s take on Chicken Cordon Bleu. There’s a common misconception that this dish is named for a French cooking school of the same name. Actually, this entree appears to have originated as a schnitzel filled with cheese in Switzerland, probably around the 1940s. Cordon Bleu (which is French for “blue ribbon”) is basically a breaded cutlet of meat pounded thin and wrapped around a slice of ham and a slice of cheese, and then fried or baked. Of course, for religious reasons ham and pork are not used in most Middle Eastern nations, but Chicken Cordon Bleu, minus the ham, is very popular.
The Babylon take on this dish starts with a succulent chicken breast that is stuffed with American cheese, then breaded, seasoned and deep fried. The dish is served with a choice of fries or rice, as well as a small salad.
Some of the other tempting options on the menu included Beef Cream Chop, Lamb Shank, Lamb Chops and Kubee Halab, which consists of four cakes made from mashed potatoes and rice, stuffed with ground beef, onion, parsley and spices, and then deep fried and served with vegetables and a creamy dipping sauce. Our server also highly recommended the Shawarma Platter and Shawarma Sandwich. The Shawarma at Babylon features slow-roasted beef that is thinly sliced from a special rotisserie, and then served with grilled tomatoes, onions and a special Shawarma sauce.
The restaurant offers a couple of desserts, including Biscuit Cake and a two-piece serving of Baklava. These sweet treats can also be ordered with coffee, including an American brew as well as Turkish coffee. Our meals were so filling during my recent visits that we decided to bypass desserts.
The Babylon menu also offers some selection for young diners under its Kids Menu. In addition, Babylon also offers hookah on its outdoor patio. Basically, hookah is a way of smoking tobacco which has been enhanced with fruit flavors. Apparently the hookah originated in India, but it has gained popularity especially in the Middle East. Hookah is also gaining popularity in North America, Europe, Australia and Brazil.
The more I’ve sampled from the menu, the more I’ve been impressed. The food sounds exotic, but the novelty in many cases is simply a matter of perceptions. The dishes we tried tasted delicious, and that’s what matters most. If you go, let the staff at Babylon know they were highly recommended.
AT A GLANCE: Babylon Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Grill, 282-9600. Open Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; and Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Menu items are $14.99 and under. Credit cards accepted. Carryout available.