Baron was recommended by a local chef – “for dinner or dinner and drinks”, Rouba Khalil told me, and that already indicated what we were in for. Tucked away just behind the bustling Mar Mikhael main street, Chef Athanasios Kargatzidis’s small restaurant has eclectic Scandanavian-esque interiors, intimate seating, dimly-lit ambiance to fit the vibe of a cool night out, a small outdoor garden and skylight area, and an open kitchen. There is attention to detail – from the small entry terrace that includes two chairs and a tiny round table just large enough for an ashtray and two drinks, to the immediate view upon said open kitchen, and the soothing subdued colours of the venue.
Vaguely hipster looking but highly informed staff play a special role in interpreting a simultaneously low-key and intimidating menu. With the ease of catching someone in a conversation at a cool neighbhoorhood spot, our server for the evening Ibrahim broke down the sharing-style menu for us. Focusing on modern Mediterranean – think core basics jazzed up with unexpected spices and sauces – the menu changes every few days, indicated by the date at the top of each simple printed A4 menu. Separated by categories such as vegetables, dairy, sausage, pork, seafood, fowl, lamb and beef, with each dish listed by its singular main ingredient, the dessert menu – which you receive later should you make it that far – also features a selection of rich dishes such as a cake that Kargatzidis describes as not baklava, or an Eton Smash which is amusingly created and destroyed before your very eyes at your table, or your neighbours, who are just near enough to do some food peeping without being invasive. This is, after all, a restaurant for foodies.
Relying on what’s good, local and fresh at the market, Kargatzidis offers a few mainstays, which Ibrahim described with conviction. Selling us immediately, and surprisingly, on something as simple as a cauliflower, unfamiliar diners may underestimate the flavour punch that comes along with “sweet potato” or “eggplant”. That giant roasted cauliflower proved a must-have that every table ordered, coming smothered in spiced butter, yoghurt tahini-tartare, walnuts, pomegranate and rose; the generous ear of corn arrived bathed in feta-elotes, radish, spring onion, coriander, chili and lime, and was carved off right in front of us with a delightful, if inadvertent, table sprinkling of corn pieces. The brisket, on the other hand, featured a duo of steamed buns with hoisin, sriracha, kewpie, peanuts, coriander, radish and carrot-pickle, was a gloriously soft, airy and flavourful take on a street food basic.
The menu consists of singular main ingredient plates that Kargatzidis infuses with character. It is a hip eatery, and you feel it, see it and taste it. “Date” really means a date gluttonously (in the best way) stuffed with soujouk, wrapped in pancetta, and doused in roasted tomato sauce, dibs rumman, pistachio and soft herbs. “Scallop on-shell” meanwhile will see three beautiful shells spilling over a plate with scallops still on them covered in josper, miso butter, shoyu spring onion chutney and lime. Each dish is densely but masterfully packed with layers and layers of diverse flavours that make each dish entirely unique, but also familiar. Paired with unassuming, straightforward plating, the dishes look homey and draw you in with smell before knocking you out with sauces that take the dish from your family’s counter to a gourmet table.
The key take away from Baron is that you will never be bored. The menu changes often enough to draw you back without wistfully wishing for the reappearance of main staples. The team is low-key, modern and while accessible and super knowledgeable, they realise that the best thing they can do is stand back and let you and the food do the real talking. As Kargatzidis says, “We leave you alone to truly understand what we do!” And that is simple dishes based on clean ingredients, but market-fresh, resonating with local palettes, availabilities and masquerading just enough as “healthy” to avoid any guilt about ordering a dish or two more than you should. The seamless culinary journey traipses through sweet, salty, sour, creamy, rich, fresh, crisp, crunch… every bite has a hook in it for each person. But perhaps most importantly, any restaurant that can convince you of, and then deliver on, a giant head of roasted cauliflower, is worth a stop again… and again.