When news came late last year that chef and restaurateur Adam Hegsted was closing his flagship Kendall Yards spot Wandering Table, local diners took to social media to express disappointment and concern.
What they didn't know at the time was that the acclaimed local chef already had a new plan for the space, which he soon shared with those loyal diners who've since gone from sad to glad to discover its replacement.
Baba debuted in late February with Hegsted's signature mashing up of classic, American comfort food with the culinary techniques and flavors of world cultures, this time from the Mediterranean.
"All of our restaurants are comfort food-based," Hegested says, adding that at Baba, his team is "taking techniques and ingredients and ideas from the Mediterranean Sea region of North Africa, Greece and Middle Eastern countries all around there, and making it our own."
"It's not really authentic in a traditional sense — some technique-wise is extremely authentic, but it might have Northwest ingredients but with our own traditional spin," he continues.
Take the Turkish mac and cheese ($14), for example — a very American dish, but at Baba made with a labneh-based sauce. (Labneh is perhaps better known as unstrained, Greek-style yogurt.)
"We made the labneh as the cheese base, so it's really creamy and delicious, and by combining it with this American comfort food, it tastes very Mediterranean."
The shell pasta dish is topped with bread crumbs, dukkah (an Egyptian spice blend of toasted nuts and seeds) and fermented chilies. A fried egg, braised lamb or sausage can also be added as protein for an extra charge.
It wouldn't be Mediterranean cuisine without hummus, that savory chickpea-based spread and condiment. At Baba, Hegsted says their recipe for hummus is "pretty classic," but that its creation utilizes some French techniques, and the result is "very light and airy and not grainy."
"It goes both ways," he says of the culinary crossovers. "Sometimes we're taking a traditional dish and maybe adding some more French technique to it to refine it, or going backwards and taking those [Mediterranean] ingredients and putting them into American comfort food."
"I wouldn't be comfortable feeling like it would be authentic in any way, so it was, 'How do we make the food representative of what we do already?'" he continues.
Besides the menu, which in its former iteration showcased Northwest-centric dishes like a popular crispy Washington steelhead entree, the other big change Hegsted made through the introduction of Baba was longer operating hours.
As Wandering Table, the restaurant served dinner only, opening late in the afternoon. Baba, meanwhile, is open all day starting at 9 am, and introduces a brunch menu served daily from 9 am to 3 pm.
"The brunch menu is a lot of similar stuff [to dinner]," the chef says. "We'll have traditional two-egg breakfast, but also a shakshuka red pepper stew with poached eggs, and some things that are crossovers from dinner but with some eggs on it."
Other brunch highlights that feature creative twists on popular morning dishes include the Baba poutine, which gets its Mediterranean touches from garlic, feta, labneh and tahini yogurt. There's a lamb sausage and potato omelet ($13), too, and on the sweet side, fresh yogurt donuts ($7) topped with honey, sea salt and orange.
Several dishes are served all day, from brunch through dinner, including the Turkish mac, several salads such as roasted beet tabouli ($8), and a selection of desserts, among them a cardamom-pecan coffee cake ($7).
Happy hour happens daily between 3 and 5 pm, and offers a selection of small plates from $3-$9. Baba's craft cocktail lineup — normally $11 each and all twists on classics, like the Za'atar spiced old fashioned — are on special for $8, draft beer is $4, and the white wine of the day is $5 per glass.
The main reason Hegsted chose to leave behind Wandering Table was largely due to the past year of depressed sales because of pandemic-induced dining restrictions. Yet even before the coronavirus hit the U.S., he says business at the restaurant was slowing down.
"Really, I think even before COVID hit, our sales were slowly decreasing, and that comes with competition and more restaurants in that same higher-end demographic, and we just didn't want to be in that space," he says.
Hegsted also felt like many customers had decided Wandering Table was a fine dining, special occasion place.
"People had this perception it was expensive, and a more fancy dining experience, and that was not ever what we were trying to be. We were trying to have comfort food so you could have a celebratory dinner, but you could come eat any day of the week," he says. "But because of our chef tasting and the service style, it morphed into that, and that did not transition well into COVID times and takeout, and we were really hurting."
Hegsted says Wandering Table's original concept (first launched as a pop-up more than a decade ago) as more of a chef-driven, multicourse meal experience may find a new home in the future. There's also a likelihood that special one-time dinners could occasionally take place at other venues in his company, Eat Good Group.
As for the restaurant space itself, not much is different except for some minor aesthetic changes to the decor to evoke more of a Middle Eastern vibe. Along the dining room's entire east wall is a new mural of camels and goats against a map of the Mediterranean, painted in sepia tones by local artist Reinaldo Gil Zambrano.
Back to the food at Baba, Hegsted says, "this is all stuff I really love to eat, stuff I like to make at home. That is where the idea of Mediterranean food came from." ♦