Stepping through the front door of the restaurant Ba in Highland Park, one is met by ceiling-to-floor curtains of gold, a couple of chandeliers, a bunch of long tree branches rising up out of a pot, and a tabletop holding variously shaped and sized glass jars, inside of which are candies that were rolled in—and then rest on—their own desert of salt.
Through the curtains, one’s focus is led right to the back wall, where the kitchen can be seen through a six-paned window. Then one’s attention is captured by the black chandelier descending from a eight-foot in diameter circle that has been attached to the ceiling’s exposed wood beams—unsanded, unvarnished, and raw, while insulation and air vents can be seen in between the supports. This circle is painted white with black trim and has rather elderly or perhaps mature-faced cut out cherubs in bas-relief. Their bodies are fleshy like a baby’s would be, and even their faces are, and yet there’s something to the large eyes and full lips and their serious, disassociated expressions that are not childlike. Peculiar, yes, but it works.
The upper walls are brick painted the gentlest of pinks, followed by white wainscotting, then grey and black flocked wall upholstery. The tables (only 12 in total) have ornate iron pedestals that support a very plain grey rectangular top. A small, clear glass tealight candleholder was the only centerpiece and silver utensils sat aside a white rectangularly folded napkin. The simple, armless upholstered chairs were the most comfortable restaurant chairs in which we’d ever sat.
And the food? We weren’t sure what to expect as reviews seemed to run from flavorless to stunning. We think our one-word answer would be “rich.” The mushroom brûlèe was thick and creamy with wonderful slices of mushroom, had three strips of brie melted on top, and was served with slices of french bread. The meal could have ended there and we would have been satisfied. Our companion thought it could have used more salt, but we would fervently disagree. The wild mushroom soup, though spooned to the last drop by our companion, was a touch bland in our opinion, but that could’ve been because we were so enthralled with the brûlèe and would not suffer any competition.
For entrées, we had the duck confit that had a lovely crusty skin and juicy, delicate meat perfectly cooked and tasting wonderfully—and simply—like duck. It sat in a shallow sea of white beans seasoned with rosemary and garlic, and though the flavor was enjoyable, the beans seemed too crunchy, almost al dente. Perhaps that was a choice, but we would have preferred that they face the heat of the flame to boil a bit more, a soft foil to the crunch of the duck skin. The accompanying fennel slaw was tangy with a gentle aniseed flavor.
The other entrée was the boeuff bourguignon. When the plate was set down on the table, the first impression was that this sauce—with its deep, deep red-chocolate brown color—must be the richest sauce we’d ever seen. And to taste it was to verify this thought; the tender meat, onions, and mushrooms mingled in a smoky, slightly spicy wading pool of richness. Companioned with wonderfully sweet (though not too sweet) mashed parsnips and browned brussel sprouts, the whole experience was simply “yum.” The intenseness of the flavor demanded that the bourguignon be eaten slowly, which was easily indulged as the conversation and company were enjoyable, and the plate deserved to be returned to the chef polished of its contents.
The fact that Ba doesn’t serve espresso was initially a bit disappointing, but their drip coffee was delicious. Our crème brûlée had a playfully hard shell, utterly smooth custard, and the bottom of the custard cup was sprinkled with black remnants of vanilla bean. Our companion’s chocolate caramel layer cake was one of the largest slices we think we’ve ever seen served in a fine dining establishment. It was quite rich and moist, and despite its size, our companion ate every bite.
Overall, the meal was wonderfully flavorful. Our companion had moments when he thought an addition of salt would have enhanced a dish, while those of us who do not use salt as often were quite happy with the seasoning “as is.” As a matter of fact, there was no salt or pepper even on the table, though we’re sure they would’ve been provided if so requested. As people who automatically grab for the fresh pepper, we were happy it was not within easy reach, so that our taste buds could accommodate the flourish and combinations of flavors as chef James Graham envisioned.
Ba sits in Highland Park at the intersection of York Boulevard and 51st Street, in the middle of an increasingly go-to neighborhood with newly opened galleries, handmade furniture (Sawhorse) and design shops (Matter of Space); a funky commercial props store that has couches to little jackets at insanely reasonable prices; The Glass Studio that offers workshops; Baba’s Vintage Tatoo Parlor; a vinyl record shop; a comics, prints, and graphic novel spot called Thank You; and several bars and Cafè de Leche.
This past Saturday night—Second Saturday—the street was busy with pedestrians and patrons, and Johnny’s Bar was a pitstop for a Midnight Ridazz group. On Sunday evening, when we dined at Ba, the street was spectacularly quiet.
As the meal cost a good chunk of change, we’ll be interested to see if Ba can survive in this neighborhood. It’s hung on for seven months so far, but that’s still “early days” in the restaurant business. We hope the people come. Designer, sculptor, and co-owner Julia Latanè has created an environment that is simultaneously soothing, comfortable, and intriguing. The serving portions are generous, the quality high, and the service friendly. As the evening drew to a close, co-owner Graham visited the patrons who lingered, checking on their satisfaction and casually chatting.
Ba Restaurant will be perhaps a splurge for some people, especially in our slowly recovering economy, but we highly recommended it for those who like to be comfortable when they sit for a leisurely meal (the chairs!), enjoy French cuisine, don’t require large doses of salt, and are eager to savor intense and varying flavors.
Ba Restaurant, 5100 York Blvd. at North Avenue 51, Highland Park 90042, reservations may be made easily online at restaurantba.com or call 323.739.6243. Dinner Tues.-Sun. with a weekend brunch. French. Beer & wine. Major credit cards accepted. $$$
Closed Dec. 24th-28th