Making Baba Proud
A Mediterranean restaurant in South Baltimore pleases from start to finish
In Baltimore's bleak mid-winter, the craving for warmth is fierce. And while a restaurant devoted to Mediterranean food appeals at any time of year, February's chill makes the presence of Baba's Mediterranean Kitchen even more welcome. Tiny and tidy, the mint-green storefront stands out in a sea of South Baltimore brick and Formstone, and on a cold night, the light from the front window beckons with the warmth of a thousand suns. Most importantly, though, the food is very good, so good you'll wish you lived around the corner.
Baba's is one of those places where you instantly feel comfortable. Part of this is due to the proximity of the few tables. You end up talking to your dining neighbors, exchanging pleasantries and "What are you eating?"-s because you're so close, and because it just seems like the thing to do. The same goes for eating at the counter that curves around the food prep area, though I have the feeling you'd be left alone if you prefer. Throughout the evening, people enter and leave Baba's with carry-out orders. Despite that, the restaurant--with its blond wood floors, exposed brick walls, and hand-painted tiles in bright royal blue and terra cotta--still feels a little like you're dining in someone's home on pretty square-shaped plates and with real cutlery. And that is due to the graciousness of Baba's owner, Farid Salloum, who takes orders, tends the register, and chats up customers with an understated charm. I don't know if Salloum has memorized the face or name of each diner, but it wouldn't surprise me if he has.
Salloum named his restaurant Baba's, after his father ("baba" means father in Arabic), a Palestinian immigrant to the United States who left a job at Chrysler to open a Carvel franchise (which later became a café) in Syracuse in 1965. With Baba's, Salloum follows in his father's footsteps, leaving an executive-level career in the computer industry after 24 years to open a restaurant devoted to the food of his family's native culture.
Baba's makes full use of the designation "Mediterranean" to include salads and pita-based pizzas (the menu calls them "pit[z]as") that are Greek and Italian in origin, as well as Middle Eastern. This means you can order caprese or couscous; a Greek pizza with feta, olives, and red onions or the Syrian-style mena-eesh ($7) with a spice blend that includes sumac and sesame seed. While the latter might look less appealing--the ground herbs give the pizza a dark flat sheen, as if it were covered with olivada--the blend of the herbs is complex and appealing with sumac adding a hint of lemony essence. Order as an appetizer to share, not as an entrée, as it's not quite substantial enough for dinner.
The Med-ley ($6), a combination of dolmas, falafel, spanakopita, hummus, and olives, is a good way to try a little bit of everything here and to remind yourself just what quality mezza taste like. Like salsa, hummus is ethnic food gone mainstream, and constant exposure to the supermarket variety numbs the memory of the authentic. We forget that good hummus tastes of a careful balance of garlic, lemon, and tahini, and that a little kick of chili can be welcome, as it is in Baba's. Or that good stuffed grape leaves have texture, that you can bite into them and they will be sturdy and nicely substantial, not soft or slick. Baba's flaky spanakopita tastes of butter, and the baba ghanouj ($4), which can often be bitter or tasteless, is smoky and creamy with small tender chunks of eggplant.
Although you can easily make a meal noshing on mezza and salads, Baba's also offers a small variety of sandwiches and platters like falafel. The combination of lamb, beef, and allspice in B's burger ($6) gives it a more intense, yet delicate quality that makes for a refreshing change from an all-beef burger. Though kabobs can often be a disappointment, Baba's chicken kabobs ($9, platter) were moist inside, nicely charred outside, and bore traces of lemon (or more sumac posing as lemon). The night's special lamb kabobs ($9) could have been less well done, but the strained yogurt and dill sauce (dill ebnee) accompanied them well. Platters are served pita-sandwich-style, or on a bed of nutty Mediterranean rice with a small green salad.
The night we dined, baklava was the only dessert offered. Made in the Middle Eastern style with pistachios and a combination of rosewater and simple syrup, not honey, the result is crisper, lighter, and more buttery than its Greek counterpart. It's also exceedingly tasty.
By the end of the evening, we were plotting our next visit, but someone in the group half-hopingly asked Salloum if he would consider opening an outpost in our neighborhood. "And give up my investment here?" he asked, mock incredulous. "Come back," he invited. "You know where to find me." I do, and now you do, too.