ST. PETERSBURG — When Debbie and George Sayegh opened their first restaurant in Brooklyn, it had nothing to do with their heritage. For Debbie, who was raised in Greece, and George, a Brooklyn native born to Lebanese parents, forging a path in New York’s competitive restaurant scene meant stepping out of their respective comfort zones for a few years.
A couple of restaurants later, the pair moved to St. Petersburg. They decided to start out small, with a grab-and-go Cuban sandwich shop. As soon as they got their footing, a bigger restaurant — an homage to both their families — would follow, they told themselves.
But the sandwich spot was Bodega, which quickly took on a life of its own when it opened in 2013, becoming a staple of St. Petersburg’s EDGE District (a Tampa outpost followed in 2018). That set the couple’s dream back another few years.
RELATED: Bodega has one of the best Cubans in Tampa Bay
Flash forward to July 2019: The Sayeghs finally made good on their promise. At Baba, their new restaurant in St. Petersburg’s Grand Central District, the spotlight is on recipes passed down by their parents and grandparents — a tribute to home, family and the food they grew up eating.
While modern Middle Eastern and Mediterranean restaurants have surged in popularity the past few years in other parts of the country, Baba offers Tampa Bay diners a fresh perspective on the genre. The menu follows along the Eastern Mediterranean region of the Levant, pulling inspiration from the culinary archives of Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Greece.
Part fast-casual/bakery space and part sit-down dining room, Baba serves its Mediterranean fare for both lunch and dinner. For now, lunch can be ordered from the bakery side of the restaurant, and guests can take their sandwiches and salads to-go or eat on the restaurant’s lovely patio overlooking Central Avenue. For dinner, the full-service setup includes an expanded menu, a bar and seating both inside and outdoors.
A good place to start for either lunch or dinner are the meze (3 for $15), little dips and salads served with warm, puffy pita bread and crispy rounds of flatbread topped with za’atar, a savory spice blend made with wild thyme, sumac, cumin and sesame seeds. I particularly love the muhammara — a thick, brick-red spread of roasted red peppers and walnuts — and the labneh, which is like a tangy, strained yogurt that arrives dotted with olive oil and za’atar.
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Also excellent is the hummus: I’m a fan of the velvety sort, where the painstaking effort of removing each and every chickpea skin is necessary to achieve the perfect balance of creamy, silky and smooth. The kitchen’s technique here involves soaking the chickpeas overnight and then boiling them, which agitates them so much that most of the skins float to the surface on their own. Tahini, lemon juice and a little bit of cumin lend the dish additional layers of flavor.
The generous meze portions are perfect for sharing, and paired with a small plate or salad at dinner they could almost constitute a full meal, especially when accompanied by one of the creative cocktails, which, like the wine list, are heavily influenced by Greece and Lebanon.
A spin on an Old Fashioned features Metaxa 7 Star (a type of Greek brandy), Four Roses bourbon, amaro, rosemary and rhubarb bitters — a potent and beautifully balanced drink. Also good is the Sophia, which is reminiscent of a Negroni, made with lemon and pomegranate liqueurs, gin, sweet vermouth and orange bitters.
If wine is more your speed, I particularly love the Greek assyrtiko ($12), which is refreshing with a nice minerality, and the Lebanese rose ($13), which tastes light and crisp and feels perfect for an al fresco evening.
The dinner menu — divided into small and large plates — features several dishes where bold flavors are paired with plenty of crunch and acid. A citrus salad ($10) features a giant mound of arugula, endives, juicy orange and grapefruit segments, pomegranate seeds and pistachios. Also excellent is the falafel plate ($10), in which three crispy-fried orbs are paired with a bright salad of apples, raw fennel, celery and a lemony tahini sauce.
The grill gets a lot of play here, from a colorful dish of charred cauliflower ($10) to a beautiful grilled halloumi special ($11), which one evening came plated on fresh fennel slices and drizzled with olive oil, fresh mint, cucumber and fiery Fresno chiles. Though the cheese was a little spongy and could have used extra time on the grill (halloumi’s high melting point makes it a natural fit), the accompanying layers hit all the right notes, and it’s a dish I’d be happy to see migrate to the regular menu.
For the larger plates, a grilled half-chicken arrives nestled in a bowl of couscous, topped with a slick and garlicky salsa verde. Roasted tomatoes lend smoky notes while pine nuts add texture — a simple and comforting dish that charms with its bucolic appeal. I was less impressed with a lamb confit ($27), which carries a nice flavor but was a little dry on one visit. Detracting further from the dish was a medley of white beans and dandelion greens that were sorely undercooked and underseasoned.
In the bakery, pita sandwiches and salads accompany baked goods like the crunchy koulouria ($4), which are like sesame-topped pretzels, and spinach- and feta-stuffed spanakopita ($6).
Many of the recipes are direct hand-me-downs from the couple’s respective families. Scallions make a surprise appearance in a lively tabbouleh, a dish inspired by George’s mother. A grilled octopus is a nod to the wealth of fresh seafood found on the Greek islands where Debbie grew up.
The one here is imported from Spain, braised and then charred. The texture is chewy without being too toothsome, with a lovely smoky flavor imbued by the grill. It comes nestled on a plate with green Spanish olives, tomatoes, lemon, capers and smoked potatoes — a bouquet of flavors on a dish that feels like the perfect seaside meal.
Baba is, of course, nowhere near the Mediterranean, but the light, whitewashed walls adorned with cobalt blue accents, tall ceilings and overall airy atmosphere lend the place a certain island charm.
Dining here, one can’t escape the evil eye, the white and blue talisman meant to ward off bad omens. It’s everywhere — painted on the walls, covering the tall wooden beams that bisect the dining room, painted on tiny rocks that act both as a paperweight on checks and a take-home charm for guests.
It’s a lovely touch, as are the black-and-white photographs of the couple’s relatives that decorate the dining room, a reminder of this restaurant’s real purpose: to honor both family and food.
What the ratings mean
1-2: Don’t waste your time
3-5: Fair, but could be better
6-8: Pretty darn good
9-10: What are you waiting for
If you go
2701 Central Ave., St. Petersburg; (727) 954-3406; eatatbaba.com
Hours: Lunch: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday. Dinner: 5 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, till 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Prices: Small plates $10 to $16; large plates $18 to $27
Recommended dishes: Muhammara meze; falafel; grilled octopus