Photo: Alex Benedetto
Photo: Alex Benedetto

Welcome to the Neighborhood, Baba

Baba is the hidden gem that Arlington has been waiting for.

Situated on a busy corner of Wilson Boulevard in Clarendon, Baba is tucked away from plain sight, but that is part of its charm.

The Balkan-inspired café and restaurant, from the same owners of neighboring Ambar, has an intimate 56-seat basement area, with a truly unique concept to the neighborhood – coffee house by day and restaurant/cocktail lounge by night.

The interior of Baba utilizes recycled materials, combining a variety of textures and detail that makes you feel that you walked into someone’s beautifully decorated and equally comfortable living space.

A tiled floor leads the way into the space, populated with circular tables and chairs, and a working fireplace. A step up puts you on a gorgeous wood floor section with leather chairs and more seating against a wall of perfectly mismatched framed artwork.

The basement space makes up for the lack of natural light by literally creating the illusion of such, with an entire wall of “windows” that have light installations behind, which change throughout the day.

The cuisine at Baba – which translates to “grandmother” – is classic Balkan fare with a modern twist, with creative ingredient combinations throughout the menu. From 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., the space operates as a coffee house, serving brunch every day of the week, with more lunch options available after 11 a.m.

The brunch menu ($5-$8) includes high-quality Colombian coffee beverages, gourmet oatmeal bowls (try the perfect bowl – oatmeal, caramelized bananas, pineapple and peanut butter), and heavenly French toast and egg dishes. Lunch dishes ($6-$10) include a rotisserie lamb panini with cherry tomato jam, melted cheese and pickled cucumber; and the bowl of beans, a flavor-packed dish of chickpeas, edamame and fava beans, with pumpkin puree, ginger syrup, Parmesan cheese, charcoal grilled kale and pumpkin seeds.

At 4 p.m., the antique chandeliers above are dimmed, the window lighting is set to twilight, and the space becomes a restaurant and lounge, serving up shareable small plates ($6-$13) and a cocktail menu curated by renowned NYX cocktail consultant Esteban Ordonez.

And do not be fooled by these small plates of food, because they are packed with flavor, each bite better than the next. Equally as impressive is the attention to presentation, with dishes served on gorgeous china patterns and colors that bring out the gorgeous colors of the food itself.

Dishes to definitely try are the smoked gouda, breaded with almond and walnut and served with cranberry vinaigrette; the hand-cut potatoes served with an addictive kimchi yogurt dip; the roasted cauliflower, beautifully presented on a creamy eggplant puree with pomegranate; forest mushroom, sautéed with onion and thyme and topped with kajmak, a creamy Balkan cheese; salmon tartare, marinated with beetroot and topped with capers, quinoa and pine nuts on crispy toast; and grilled tuna, served with a coconut-cauliflower puree and green onion and kimchi salsa.

And for carnivores, try the signature slider: a veal and beef burger, perfectly cooked and juicy, served with a zesty salsa of walnuts, hard-boiled eggs and capers, or a staff favorite, the rib eye: dry-aged beef, glazed with thyme butter and served with a Parmesan cream that you will soon be wanting to dip everything into.

All of these flavorful small plates are designed to coincide with the cocktail offerings ($9-$13), which feature some really creative combinations of flavors and twists on the classics. Try the GTG, Baba’s take on the gin and tonic, with cucumber-infused gin, elderflower tonic and rose water, served in a deep glass with edible flower petals that add a beautiful touch of color and finish.

Also try the Baba Sazerac, a modern take on the classic with Pernod absinthe, and the Serbian Sombrero, Baba’s margarita with pink peppercorn tequila, rose water and Mexican salt. Be sure to also explore the wines, with options from Serbia and Bulgaria you likely aren’t going to find anywhere else.

And Baba is sure to become one of the hot spots for happy hours. Offered Monday through Friday, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., patrons can enjoy 50 percent off all cocktails, with $5 house red, white and sparkling wines, and Heineken beer. And Wednesday through Saturday evenings, starting at 9:30 p.m., they have a DJ spinning, with sounds naturally coming through one of the open “window” spaces.

Baba: 2901 Wilson Blvd. Arlington, VA; 703-312-7978; www.baba.bar

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Alex Thompson

Alex is a fan of all things food and sports, as well as a writer. By day she is a nonprofit communications manager, and by night she is searching the District for the best cocktails, whiskey selection and cuisine. Check out her blog at hellofoodgirl.com and follow her on twitter at @sportsfoodalex.