Babaluu – More Than Just Salsa Dancing

Many Torontonians have walked past it without even knowing that it’s there. Maybe the people who go there for the salsa dancing also have a bit to eat. But for the most part, Babaluu Supperclub (136 Yorkville Avenue) flies under the radar when it comes to dining. Which is too bad, because owners Nubia Solano and Pilar Galvis have put a lot of work into the “supper” part of their Latin supperclub.

Opened in 1994 in a space on Bloor West, the restaurant moved to its current location in 1996 when the original building went bankrupt. Solano, who was working with Trevor Berryman of Bersani & Carlevale fame, had put a lot of work into the decor of the original space and brought many of the gorgeous glass murals with her when they had to move a few years later.

Along with the DJs, bands, and dance classes that are still a big part of what Babaluu is about, Solano wanted the place to be a real tapas bar, but in the mid-90s, still found a lot of resistance and misunderstanding. “People said I was crazy bringing it to Yorkville, this Latin thing,” Solano says, of both the food and the music. “I used to have a little blurb that ‘tapas are dishes that are meant for sharing, traditionally from Spain…’”

At the time, people still had a hard time with the concept of small plates and sharing, so it was a struggle for Solano and her staff to convince people that the food was any good. And to this day, they find that a lot of people have many misconceptions about Latin food.

“People who are not Latin think that all Latin food is like Mexican, and it’s not the case,” says Galvis, Babaluu’s CEO. “’You like spices because you speak Spanish’, it’s a stereotype of what Latin cuisine is – a lot of spices.”

But the pair admit that while they both hail from Colombia, they’ve intentionally kept the menu full of influences from across South America and Spain, just to make it more accessible to people.

“The menu is a real potpourri of cuisines of the Americas,” says Solano. “We’re trying to create a mix of different regions: Mexican because of this, tropical because of bananas and plantains, the paella is Spanish, and a little bit of Mediterranean influence.”

Galvis adds, “Our influences are Spanish, Mexican, Peruvian, Colombian and Jamaican. The islands and all of Latin and Central America have common ingredients.”

One look at the menu reveals all of these influences and more, with plenty of fresh fish, and ingredients like plantain and cassava, guacamole and a selection of paellas that are full of flavour and made in a very authentic manner.

Galvis tells me that she spent six weeks in Spain, trying to find ideas and recipes for paella that were better than what they served at Babaluu, and came home empty-handed. “We use the actual saffron,” she says, explaining the difference. “In Spain they don’t do that anymore, you buy a mixture. But here we use the real saffron, which we keep in a safe.”

Ceviche is another dish that Babaluu does extremely well, and yet another thing that the two restaurateurs initially found that customers didn’t understand.

“I attempted this with our first chef, we brought [ceviche] out and people were very confused,” Solano says. “We also used to do fish in banana leaves with quinoa and capers, wrapped and steamed. People would ask us ‘what’s quinoa?’ We had to take them off the menu.”

Fortunately, times seem to be changing, and Babaluu has recently started doing regional tasting menu events. Previous events have included authentic, regional foods of Mexico and Peru and coming up this week, they’ll be offering a menu featuring the tastes of Colombia. The $39.95 prix fixe dinner includes a cocktail, appetizer (choice of empanada, a traditional Colombian corn soup or plantain with chicken), entrée (choice of fish, steak, or the famous Arroz con Pollo) and dessert (choice of flan or tamarillo fruit).

Solano tells me that they’d like to do the tasting menus more often but they take a while to prepare and promote. Their goal is three or four a year, to slowly get people accustomed to more authentic dishes.

“We have such a wide clientèle that you have to keep stuff a little safe,” she explains. “We have very creative stuff in all our countries. [We] could put tripe stew or oxtail, but some people are not that open-minded yet. But [we have] enough that you get a sense of what Mexico is, what Peru is…”

And lest potential customers think of Babaluu as one of those supperclubs where they’ll be stuck trying to eat dinner while the music gets cranked up and people are dancing around their table, the ladies assure me that the transition from dining room to danceclub comes in a very obvious process.

“It can be a very quiet place right now and be crazy by 11pm,” explains Galvis. “[At 7pm] we have a duo that will be singing while people will be sitting here to have dinner, then by 9:30pm we have dance lessons and people will get up and participate, and after that the DJ will start.”

When I dropped by on a recent Saturday night, the place was very quiet at 7pm, but the dining room started to fill up after an hour or so. The clientèle ranged from a few large groups, to some couples obviously on a date, and there was even a family with a (well-behaved) toddler who arrived around 9pm for dinner. The room did fill up later on and the energy level in the space went up as people prepared for the dance lessons, but it never got obnoxious like some lounge-type places that push their diners aside for the club crowd.

Most importantly, the food was great. The paella and ceviche were especially impressive, and an appetizer of fried strips of plantain, cassava and yucca with guacamole was visually stunning besides being really tasty. Solano admits that the chips are so popular that they’re trying to find a way to market them.

As one of the few higher-end Latin restaurants in the city, Babaluu has faced many challenges in getting customers to understand their concept and their food. But in the 16 years they’ve been around, Toronto’s culinary scene has changed significantly. We’re ready for ceviche, we’re ready for authentic paella, and we’re ready for a little dancing after dinner.

Babaluu’s Taste of Colombia prix-fixe dinner series runs from July 21st to 24th. To make reservations, check out the website or call 416- 515-0587.