Sizing Up The Scene At Babe's

Posted: October 16, 1988

Some burning questions on the much-talked-about new Babe's have found answers - of sorts - after three recent review visits to the place.

This Babe's, is it a real steakhouse? Yes, in that it serves up some of the biggest and best steaks around, including a hefty, 24-ounce aged porterhouse that I'd have thought only a starving lion could polish off. But a real steakhouse would stick to steaks and chops, and Babe's gets a little fancy at times, occasionally with disappointing results.

And then there's the balcony lounge. It's a truly terrific place for those of us of a certain age to listen to or dance to our favorite love songs played and sung by some exceptionally talented musicians. But I'm not sure how many people go to a steakhouse for romance, or go to a lounge to eat steak.

Is Babe's a ramshackle warehouse, converted, inexpensively, into a restaurant? It was designed to look that way, but making Babe's appear old and beat up cost just a shade under three million bucks.

Is Babe's a neighborhood restaurant? Frederick "Babe" Kozlowski, an amiable 39-year-old self-made millionaire who grew up in the restaurant's Port Richmond neighborhood, insists he would love it to be that way, but the word has spread like wildfire that the prices are out of sight - actually, they're no steeper than a downtown steakhouse charges - and, consequently, many locals say they're scared to walk in the door. To date, most of the customers seem to be suburbanites from areas near Interstate 95, which exits near Babe's.

Is Babe's great theater? You bet. Everything from the towering white-hatted chef who tends the king-size rotisserie to the sofa-filled lounge that rises to meet the bandstand every evening is designed to amuse, delight and entertain. Which is why, even though the food and service on my review visits were less than stellar, I and the various pals who accompanied me plan to go back for more.

I'm not sure that even Babe understands what Babe's is supposed to be, but if his intention was to operate a serious restaurant, some changes will have to be made. They should begin with the service.

With several expensively costumed servers swarming in view of our table and an official-looking person - complete with a headset - overseeing the proceedings, we waited for 15 minutes before being handed a menu at one meal. At another, a rather obvious pool of water that spilled as my glass was being filled remained on the table for at least an hour until my sleeve blotted it nicely.

The friends who phoned for one reservation had to call all morning to get through; I had my own problems with getting a table on the balcony. Told by the maitre d' that there was no record of my request for such a table, we were informed that we could drink upstairs but would have to dine below. When we stood firm, we were led to the balcony, where a half-dozen tables around us stayed empty during our two-hour meal.

The kitchen did some things very well. Outstanding soups included a terrific cream of mushroom that tasted of wild mushrooms and a chowder so creamy rich and sustaining that I'd come back just for it. Duck, fresh from the giant rotisserie that is a focal point of the downstairs room, was moist- fleshed and lightly scented from fruitwood smoke. The taster proclaimed it the best duck ever; I didn't argue.

My 12-ounce slab of prime rib (there's also a 26-ounce cut) was juicy, buttery under the knife and just rare enough. A filet mignon (10 ounces) was equally tender and robustly flavored but cooked well beyond the medium-rare degree requested. At $21, a grilled rib veal chop was pricey but disappointing in flavor.

My favorite of the appetizers at Babe's was assembled at the raw bar and included large, sweet shrimp; chunks of good, fresh crab, and slices of cold lobster tail so big that they could only have come from one of the 3 1/2-pound crustaceans that, at $62.50 for two people, are the menu's most expensive item.

Of three caviars offered, I tried the Royal Beluga - the most expensive of the lot at $38 per serving - and found the grains smaller and saltier than some less costly caviars I've enjoyed.

Where the kitchen missed the mark by a mile was with a dinner appetizer of assorted mushrooms in which none of the stuffings - spinach, sausage, crab - had even vaguely interesting seasonings. A lunch disappointment was the impossibly soggy crumb coating on the fried oysters paired with a rather good chicken and pineapple salad.

Tableside cooking is promoted heavily at Babe's, yet the carts for cooking and concocting seemed flimsy-looking and out of place in the otherwise solidly furnished restaurant. We watched our Caesar salad being concocted from all the right ingredients but were disappointed when the salad seemed shortchanged of garlic, lemon, Parmesan and anchovy.

Snow peas in sesame oil arrived with potatoes as the entree accompaniments at our first dinner. At the second evening meal, only potatoes were served. A partner's baked potato was soggy and tasted warmed over. My potato chunks, cooked and flavored by the fat and juices dripping from the rotisserie, were oily and bland and not worth the risk to heart health.

Desserts at Babe's tend to be light and pretty and - to my taste at least - just right after a substantial meal. Our special favorites were a layered mousse and cake combination flavored with pistachio, a similar dessert that combined strawberry and kiwi layers, and a third mousse with hard-chocolate coating and raspberry liqueur flavor.

A decent wine list provided a drinkable '82 California cabernet for $20.

BABE'S

3400 Aramingo Ave.; 423-6000.

Open: Lunch: Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5 to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday to 10:30; Sunday dinner, 4 to 9 p.m.

Price range: Lunch entrees, $3.95 to $13.75; dinner entrees, $13.75 to $62.50 for a two-person serving.

Credit cards: Major cards accepted.

Nonsmoking section: No.

Facilities for handicapped: Yes.

Atmosphere: Great theater with lots to see and hear.

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