My nose had barely crossed the threshold into Baharat when I caught one of my favorite odors, tinkling like a wind chime beneath scents of grilling meat. Pickles. I’d know that smell anywhere. Instantly, I was flashing back to summer weekend expeditions to Guss’s Pickles on New York’s Lower East Side, where popping open red plastic barrels let loose tidal waves of vinegar and coriander into the July air.

I also must have spoken the word aloud to my dinner guest, because co-owner and general manager Jenna Friedman overheard. She laughed and replied, “Yep. That makes sense. We make all the pickles here ourselves, and we do a lot of them.” A measure of how seriously her husband, chef/co-owner Clay Norris takes his brining is that pickles ($3 per portion, or three for $7) at the East Bayside restaurant are given their own section on the menu. There are crunchy cauliflower florets, taxicab yellow from turmeric; minty cubes of tart, softened eggplant; and firm, almost sweet broccoli stems – an off-the-menu surprise that I tasted as part of a sharable, large-format meal, The All In ($45 for two people, $80 for four).

Norris’s inspiration to pickle something many people would consider compost came from working in the kitchen of a frugal Egyptian chef. “I was picking cilantro leaves off the stems, and he came in and yelled at me, then walked away. When he came back, he asked me, ‘Why are you throwing away the stems? That’s a vegetable, too.’ So if I can treat broccoli stems like a food, that’s another thing that doesn’t get thrown away,” he said.

Norris and Friedman are just as careful about making the most of their space. It’s a legacy of their two years operating Portland’s CN Shawarma food truck, where every square centimeter mattered. Today, in their small, but comparatively luxurious corner restaurant – across the street from the spot where their truck sat parked – they have turned space saving into a design practice by plating many dishes on aluminum baking trays that stack compactly. In the dining room, their shiny surfaces atop wood tables echo Baharat’s zinc bar, sparkling on a heavy hickory base.

Some of the restaurant’s best seats are there, mostly because it allows easy access to genial bar manager Arvid Brown and his sensational specialty cocktails. Some, like the Manhattan Bazaar ($14), take classics and subvert them just a bit – in this case, by substituting nuanced, complex Cardamaro for the strict fruitiness of Maraschino.

Or the Charred Lemon Collins ($10), which uses caramelized grilled lemon and preserved, dried citrus to lend a Tom Collins some Middle Eastern elegance. Others are original creations that show off Brown’s inventiveness, like the Curcuma Sour ($10), that builds a rye and Strega foundation to support what he calls “an experiment with turmeric,” all tempered by cucumber, citrus and aquafaba froth.

Brown is even willing to flout the theme of the restaurant in the interest of an excellent original drink, as he does with the red chili-garnished Tom Kha-Tail ($10): a sweet (and boozy) version of a Thai soup made with coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves and ginger. “In the end, I decided ‘does it taste good?’ is a better bottom-line than ‘does it fit the theme?'” he said.

It’s a smart attitude in a restaurant that, while technically Eastern Mediterranean, isn’t afraid of a little heterodoxy here and there. As part of the All In, you’ll find a delightfully smoky corn salad with sherry vinegar and smoked paprika – more Bilbao than Beirut. Elsewhere, Norris fluffs up the interior of his house fries ($5) with a French hole-poking technique before frying and dressing them with tangy sumac and toum (a pyrotechnically garlicky emulsion). Then there’s the Baharat Ding Dong ($8), a wonderful Levantine re-imagining of an all-American Hostess snack cake, with pieces of moist chocolate cake beached on a jetty of thick black tahini mousse and sprinkled with fine crumbles of halvah.

One place where Baharat suffers a bit is, ironically, its grilled meats. On a recent visit, I ate a chicken kebab ($5) that was undersalted and a little bland, even marinated in fresh citrus, ginger and turmeric and served with a squirt of toum. It tasted of little apart from char. The lamb kofta kebab ($7) was similarly undersalted, and while the flavor of the restaurant’s namesake baharat spice blend did come through (especially cumin and allspice), the meat was just past done. Both kebabs were still decent, but neither seemed like a dish prepared by a team that until recently, was esteemed for its shawarma spit.

On the other hand, having a permanent home seems to have given Norris the elbow room to explore dairy, vegetables and grains, something he has done passionately. Take his extraordinary housemade labneh (salted, thickened yogurt served as part of the All In), topped with a blanched tomato that has been marinated in olive oil and dried spearmint – liltingly sweet and herbal, it’s even better pressed into a torn shred of blistered Iraqi naan from Ameera Bread.

The shiny tabletops at Baharat echo the zinc bar. Staff photos by Derek Davis

Two cauliflower specials showcase intensely caramelized, mahogany-dark fried cauliflower in very different preparations (both $9). One highlights the savory, with capers, walnuts, crumbled feta and an Aleppo pepper aioli, while the other uses a dollop of fresh yogurt and halved black grapes to accent sweetness. Both are superb.

The same can be said of most of Baharat’s traditional vegetarian dishes. Smooth and practically weightless hummus ($5 small/ $7 large) is made with cumin-kissed chickpeas. Lebanese-style falafel balls ($5) resemble the eggs of a mythological bird: their interiors moist and bright green with parsley and cilantro, and their shells crisp and craggy. Even the tabbouleh ($5) dazzles with grand flourishes of mint, sumac and coriander.

Norris and Friedman may have made a name for themselves with kebabs and shawarma, but their future reputation will hang from new tent poles: imaginative cocktails and a stellar vegetable-forward menu. With those strengths, it’s easy to picture Baharat maturing into a restaurant with a national following. If you don’t quite believe me, stop in for a falafel sandwich ($10), drizzled with runny, allspice-infused tzatziki. Better yet: Try the pickles.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

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Twitter: @AndrewRossME