Baron By Name and Bite
There’s only so much you’ll experience in the culinary world of Lebanon. When a new restaurant opens, you can bank on already being well-versed with 50%, if not 75%, of the dishes featured. Be it an Italian pizzeria, a French bistro, a Japanese sushi joint, or a Lebanese shawarma stand, there aren't too many surprises you can expect.
Two reasons for this. First and foremost, the Lebanese palate, while discerning, is heavily biased in favor of familiar flavors, so menus intentionally reject the foreign. Secondly, the creativity of the chef is capped. He draws up a menu based on what’s trending in the country and what his culinary capacity can afford him.
Now imagine for a second that a new restaurant opens in Beirut, slapping both of the foregoing principles smack in the face and flipping them on their heads. The restaurant introduces unconventional tastes and flavors, and boasts a kitchen whose sense of adventure knows no boundaries. A bit far-fetched?
Well, as of a few months ago, it no longer is. Meet Baron, an honorable sir in every sense of the word. Nestled along Pharaon Street in Mar Mikhael, and neighbor to Frosty Palace and MJ’s, Baron invites ambitious diners daily from 11:30 am – 3:30 pm and 7:30 – 11:30 pm.
The kitchen is avant garde in that not even a glass barrier separates you from the chefs busying about. You could mosey up to the bar and plant yourself for a spectacle of cooking. There’s a terrace naturally stemming from the main dining space, and if you fancy a cocktail, watch it being muddled at the trolley center stage, before your very eyes.
|Diners have an open audience with the chefs and kitchen staff|
I’d done a bit of homework before making Baron’s acquaintance, and to be frank, I was giddy with excitement. The menu published online (fancy website, too!) is markedly distinctive from any I’ve ever seen, arranging dishes not by their position in the normal course of a meal but rather by their primary component: vegetable, seafood, meat, or dairy.
Nearly a dozen items fall under each header, and trust me, it’s rather hard picking among them. But 3-4 will do – you won’t want more than that. I mean, you will, but you’re going to come back, so why put a strain in your seams?
Two slices of pain de campagne with what I would best describe as a cross between Moroccan harissa and Syrian muhammara landed on our table as we tucked into a bottle of Lebanese red.
|Warm pain de campagne drizzled with olive oil and herbs, |
accompanied by a harissa-muhammara fusion
Not long thereafter, the first part of our meal arrived: grilled corn on the cob slathered with feta cream and coriander. Our waiter, Issa, brandished a knife and proceeded to shave off the bulbs of the corn into a large plate for easy consumption.
|Corn on the cob with creamy feta|
Beside it lay lamb merguez with tri-colored bell peppers in a tangy balsamic glaze and a scoop of explosive feta mousse. That plate is on fire! Ordinarily, you’d expect the dairy member to temper, but the feta is actually the most piquant element of the dish!
|Crushed nut-crusted merguez with roasted bell peppers and fiery hot feta mousse|
We were captivated. And what came next was even feistier.
Calamari smothered with zhoug – who’s even heard of this Yemeni hot green pepper relish? – delivers a perfectly supple texture with undeniably fresh flair.
|Calamari tossed with zhoug, a Yemeni hot green pepper relish|
But the real masterpiece is the braised beef short rib sliced into thin shavings and stuffed inside bao steamed buns with hoisin, chili, pickled cucumber, spiced crushed almonds and cilantro. If a chef can pull off Chinese and Greek in one sloppy, meaty mouthful, he’s got me spellbound. For life.
|Bao buns stuffed with braised beef short rib shavings|
We peered over the counter and beheld what looked like a cake fashioned from filo pastry. Having learned that Baron’s chef and owner is Greek (Athanasios “Tommy” Kargatzidis), there was no question we had to try the quintessence of all Hellenic pastries, and that’s baklava.
Stuffed with walnut nougatine and mastic nigella seed ice cream, this sweet something really is something else. Don’t let its amorphous shape fool you – it’s got structure in every bite, accentuated by candied rose petals.
|Greek-style baklava with mastic ice cream and rose petals|
Issa had sold us on the chocolate cream puff, and judging by the gigantic choux pastries decorating the counter, we knew we were in for a treat. For those with less of a sweet tooth, this is your cradle, because the dark chocolate ice cream and the cloud of whipped cream are fresh, homemade, and seemingly sans sucre. Stunning.
|Cream puff with homemade chocolate ice cream and whipped cream|
I can’t remember the last time I was so pumped to go back to Mar Mikhael. But Baron’s got me in a trance, nobleman that he is, and I shan’t tarry. There’s so much more to explore, and my heart’s beating fast at the mere thought of meeting him again.