Restaurant review: Baba's Kitchen is a cozy neighborhood staple

I make no secret of my affinity for small, neighborhood restaurants, the ones that draw character from their surroundings while doing wonders for real estate values. Don't feel like cooking? Walk a few blocks. Priceless.

Such places tend to have two things in common: The kitchen's output is far superior to what you'd expect if you were judging the place on its looks; and no matter how tight the seating, they always manage to feel more intimate than cramped.

Baba's Kitchen, at the end of a block of rowhouses on Fort Avenue, is such a place. The menu is Mediterranean, the personality is homey and vibrant — the kind of neighbor everyone wants.

1:00 We arrive on a day when it feels good to be outside, the first truly warm day in months. All three of Baba's sidewalk tables are occupied. Inside, owner Farid Salloum holds court behind a wide, L-shaped counter. Three stools at the counter offer a place to sit when all of Baba's five dining room tables — fashioned from recycled bowling lanes — are filled. We were fortunate to have a table open up just as we entered.

Like the tables, much of Baba's interior appears "found." One long wall is bare brick, slightly bowed in places. It extends a lived-in warmth to the entire room.

1:07 We take some time sifting through the menu. It's predominantly vegetarian; exceptions include chicken and lamb kebabs. Normally, I don't pass up a chance at kebabs, but this time a couple of other items caught my eye, and I end up feeling pretty good about my order, even though it means missing grilled meat.

My dining companion orders the falafel "Pita Pocket" ($6), and I order what amounts to a trio of snacks: zucchini fries ($4), a hummus plate ($4.50) and spanokopita ($4.50). Baba's offers a half-dozen salads, including couscous, quinoa and caprese; each is $7. They also offer a selection of "Pit(z)as," also for $7, with various toppings over pita rounds.

1:11 Our hummus arrives almost immediately, the spanokopita next, and the fries and falafel last. Our table is full in less than five minutes. And while we'd arrived on the late side for lunch and I could imagine the kitchen wasn't hopping busy, I am a bit nervous seeing our meals arrive as quickly as they did. That can mean the stuff's been waiting for you for an hour or more. But that fear is dispelled the moment we began eating.

The falafel croquettes are crisp outside with an interior so creamy my dining companion wonders if Baba's slips yogurt into the mix. And rather than stuffing a pita pocket, Baba's sets its falafel in a warm, pliant pita round. A yogurt dressing drizzled over lettuce and tomato adds a cool contrast to the wrap.

A couple of pinches of parsley folded into the hummus spread ups the zing factor, and a generous dusting of cumin and daub of olive oil complete one of the more nuanced hummus recipes I've encountered.

I vaguely recall having zucchini fries somewhere in the past. I will have no trouble remembering Baba's version. A crusty, herbed breading encases the hot, juicy zucchini sticks for a brilliant texture contrast. A creamy white, lemon-infused sauce is served with them, but I prefer dabbing on a bit of hummus, treating it like a condiment.

Finally, in the medley on our table, the spanokopita stood out because, well, it's spanokopita: five toasty, flaky filo pastries, triangle-shaped and about 3 inches long, and stuffed with spinach and feta. Unlike everything else in our order, Baba's doesn't have a particular spin on this treat. And I was good with that. If Mom is bugging you to eat your spinach, try these.

1:30 In less than a half-hour after being seated, we finished what felt like a leisurely lunch. Baba's Kitchen serves lunch till 2:30 p.m. then opens again for dinner at 5. It doesn't serve alcoholic beverages but does let you bring your own.

1:35 We settle our bill and step outside, where the sidewalk tables looked no less inviting than they did when we walked in. What a spot for a warm spring night and a bottle of wine.

Dining time: 35 minutes

Baba's Kitchen

Where: 745 E. Fort Ave.

Contact: 410-727-7482

Lunch hours (same menu): 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday

Lunch entrées: $6-$8

Food: ¿¿¿1/2

Service: ¿¿¿1/2

Atmosphere: ¿¿¿1/2

Nearby reviews: DishBaltimore.com - Federal Hill / South Baltimore

[Key: Outstanding: ¿¿¿¿ Good: ¿¿¿ Fair or Uneven: ¿¿ Poor: ¿]