Diversity is easy to love if your group can dominate. But when supremacy is challenged, the dominant class gets itchy for a fight (or flight). Hence the white guys currently abandoning multicultural democracy to flirt with authoritarianism, and abandoning egalitarian family life for an existence online with their fellow gamers and trolls. The better alternative, some say, is to incorporate diversity, be transformed by it, and fuse it into a new and coherent identity. But that is pipe-dream stuff. It never happens, no matter what Pericles said about Athens, intersectional feminists say about their activism, or improv comedians promise in their performances.
Well, maybe it happens with food. The new East Bayside restaurant Baharat is named for a spice mix that gives strong flavors a coherent taste. The experience there illuminates both the charm of the dream of transformative diversity, as well as its limitations. The cuisine at Baharat conveys what is appealing about bringing strong flavors together. Its venue — tucked under a new upscale building in a “mixed income” neighborhood, suggests some of the complications.
The menu at Baharat encourages a mingling of flavors, textures, even colors. Spreads, pickled vegetables, and kebabs, each in their own category, beg to be experimented with in various combinations. The creamy ful, made with fava beans and egg, seemed bitter when eaten on its own with crisp flatbread dusted with cardamom. But the strong spice is transformed when combined with a bit of sharp pickle — like the lovely yellow turmeric cauliflower.
Similarly, the lamb kebab’s strongest flavor was bitter, but combined nicely with garlicky tzatziki and the sour of minty pickled eggplant. Falafel balls had a great soft texture beneath a crisp and mildly spiced shell. It’s all served, like everything at Baharat, on rimmed baking sheets that make smearing and combining especially easy.
Za’atar-spiced deviled eggs. Photo by Rebecca Goldfine.
Other dishes seemed intended to stand alone, with all the combinations performed in the kitchen. Grilled corn “kebob” was nicely seared and sweet, with feta and black tahini adding earthiness. Za’atar deviled eggs were all creamy smoke. Mushroom crepes, made with big pieces of meaty chicken-of-the-woods (hard to find this time of year), were a bit of creamy mush — under-seasoned but still obscuring the appeal of this terrific mushroom.
Baharat’s gorgeous cocktails promise still more compelling juxtapositions of flavor, like the turmeric, cucumber, and the chickpea foam on their rye whiskey Curcuma Sour, or the curry and carrot in the gin-based Garden Party. In fact, one flavor dominated each, tart citrus and sweet carrot respectively. Still, they were nice — as were several of the very reasonably priced wines, like an earthy blend from Lebanon.
Baharat is the latest food/drink centered addition to the “mixed-income” neighborhood that is East Bayside. It is reasonably priced and feels welcoming. The space is light-filled with huge windows, and looks spare but casual. But one wonders if Baharat, and its neighbors Tandem Coffee and Riding Tide Brewery, are really part of an interesting new mix in East Bayside, long cited as Portland’s most diverse neighborhood, or rather part of a developing new dominance by the well off. The crowd did not seem diverse by any measure except age.
The restaurant is housed in a new building that looks like every “luxury condo” being built all over town — in fact it is full of rentals — on a corner that used to offer the city’s cheapest tires and softest car inspections. One new resident, chatting at the bar, called the building “mixed-income.” Maybe — if a family wants to cram into a 400 squar foot studio at $1200 a month. For $1500, they can get a bedroom. Some social critics suggest that an embrace of diversity, especially in culinary taste, is the new signifier of the cultural elite. Baharat makes a diversity of flavors taste good together. It is not clear that it is making a diverse neighborhood new in a way that will cohere.
Baharat | 91 Anderson St., Portland | Wed-Sun 5 pm to 10 pm | 207-613-9849 | www.baharatmaine.com