Since I grew up in a more moderate summer climate than Tampa Bay's, I find it difficult to buy into the Florida natives' solution of surrendering to the heat. I would rather surrender to the Man of La Mancha than spend anymore time outdoors in summer than I must.
Maybe that's why I found Baraka, a little Middle-Eastern restaurant, so pleasant. Ensconced in its shady protection, it was the perfect antidote to oppressive weather. The light fare hails from some of the world's hottest regions. For thousands of years, the ancient cuisine has defeated brutal heat with grace.
Baraka came across with excellent fare, a simple and an appealing decor, prompt service and a dynamite takeout counter.
Our first surprise came when the waitress brought two huge, heavy glasses loaded with ice water, a disc of fresh lemon decorating each rim.
"What's that smell?" asked my dining companion. We thought it might be the waitress wearing a new scent by Chanel.
Then our noses led us to the water glasses. Fruity, intoxicating, mysterious - rosewater? Orange juice? When she returned, the waitress explained the source: The chef had dropped a tiny tear of orange blossom oil in each glass, a lovely gesture that perfumed the whole table. We sighed at its luxurious effect.
Then came a small plate with buttered pita bread squares, toasted and dusted with bits of fresh parsley — a complimentary appetizer. The chef certainly had our number — we fell upon it like a couple of rabid dogs, and ate every morsel.
By the time the "vegetarian sampler" ($6.95) arrived, with a lush selection of hummus, the eggplant puree baba ghanoush, tabouli, stuffed grape leaves, lettuce salad, falafel and tahini sauce, so refreshing to the eye and palate, we were smitten.
Baraka is a modest place, a storefront tucked away in the Ambassador Square Shopping Center, a collection of barbershops and pizza joints. Egyptian Yehia Khalifa has owned it for about a year. The food reflects not only that of his native land, but Lebanese and other Middle Eastern variations as well.
Inside, its interior is done in green and white, with bare Formica tables, just a few decorations and an appealing simplicity. A deli counter jammed with pastries and takeout dishes occupies one side of the restaurant. On the menu are soups, salads, kebabs, a seafood plate and various types of rolled pitas, hearty whole dinner platters, and plenty of vegetarian meals.
A chicken noodle soup ($2.25 cup, $2.95 bowl) was OK but nothing to write home about. Better was the lentil soup ($1.95 cup, $2.50 bowl), which a Turkish friend informed me "everybody eats all the time." We could certainly go along with that custom. Steaming like the sidewalks following a downpour, the color of pale sunshine, its texture was similar to that of gooey mashed potatoes, leaving a warmth and smoothness upon the tongue. It was simple and mellow, but not boring. A basket of pita arrived with the soup, great for dipping.
The house salad ($2.95 small, $3.95 large) was piled high with diced tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, bell peppers, parsley, olive oil, lemon and herbs, feta cheese, all glistening with the tangy house dressing. It was so generous that light eaters could get away with making a meal of the salad, an appetizer and pita.
Still, the entrees were intriguing. We ordered shish kebab, two skewers of cubed, marinated lamb grilled with bell peppers, onions and spice ($8.50). Again, the essence of simplicity.
It reminded me of one of the best meals I ever ate, at a roadside stand in Yugoslavia. We had stopped for lunch, and found a man turning a leg of lamb over an open fire. We had a language barrier, but the proprietor didn't wait for an order, just hacked off two big, crusty chunks from the sizzling, charcoal-blackened surface, and flung them carelessly upon fat pieces of hand-made peasant bread. He wrapped each sandwich in newspaper, and thrust it at us, wordlessly. We didn't care about his rough manners, we knew we would rarely eat so well again.
Comparatively, Baraka's little cubes of lamb on their skewers seemed modest, but it was that sense of restraint that really hit the spot. It's too dang hot for some big hulking piece of meat, anyway. In summer, barbecue T-bones or plate-size wedges of ham hold no magic; I prefer something lighter, like tabouli and a blonde-colored hummus to drag it around in, or seafood.
One evening, we tried the seafood combo plate ($10.95), a combination of fish and shrimp kebob with a tiny cup of potent garlic sauce. The fish was yellowed with the spice called turmeric, and a dozen shrimp were crammed onto the kebob stick. We amused ourselves by guessing what was in it, for it carried so many exotic flavors. The dish was light, easy to digest, but so huge I could barely eat half.
When we inquired about dessert, we discovered the excellent deli counter that shares space with the restaurant. It houses a double-length cooler, loaded with a dazzling array of takeout items, from spinach pie pockets to big containers of rice pudding, to a dozen different kinds of Arabic pastries.
We sampled more of them than was strictly necessary — once we got started, we had trouble stopping. Honeyed baklava ($1), sweet and crispy. Thin "bird's nests" ($1.25), layers of buttered phyllo pastry hand-shaped into squares and topped with pine nuts. Round, rolled cigarette-size pastry "fingers" (75 cents) that collapsed with powdery precision in the mouth. We washed them down with glasses of hot tea ($1), its liquid carrying the rejuvenating flavor of fresh mint.
Contact food critic Sara Kennedy at [email protected] or call 813-248-8888, ext. 116.