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November 15, 2012


Tomatoes, Garlic, Olives Dominic Armato

  DISCLOSURE: While my love for their restaurants predates our friendship, I'm lucky to have spent a good amount of time hanging out and chowing with Pavle, Charleen and much of the FnB/Baratin crew.  

Would it be blasphemous of me to suggest that over the past few months, I've been enjoying Baratin even more than I've enjoyed FnB?

At this point, Baratin should need no introductions, though the fact that it isn't jam-packed every time I set foot in the place suggests that some of you need a reminder. When Pavle Milic and Charleen Badman of the near-universally beloved FnB opened a second place, they went decidedly downscale and quirky (in the best possible sense), turning three adjacent storefronts into Baratin, Bodega, and AZ Wine Merchants. Bodega's a great little grocery, featuring a small but impeccably-curated selection of mostly local foodstuffs, fresh, dried, or canned. AZ Wine Merchants is both shop and showroom, where Pavle fulfills his position as unofficial ambassador of Arizona's wine country. And Baratin is where Charleen puts out dishes that are, in theory, simpler and more casual than the fare at FnB, but in practice are every bit their equal.

Castelvetrano OlivesDominic Armato

Bodega and AZ Wine Merchants have since merged into one space, with the resulting vacancy under construction for a purpose not yet revealed. But Baratin is as it ever was, a small footprint standing taller than it is wide, minimally presented, bathed in light and altogether exceptionally pleasant, a perfect metaphor for the food if you're inclined to overexamine these kinds of things. The hook, though I don't mean to imply that it's contrived, is that the entire menu is six items long: one snack, one salad, one vegetable, one pickled or cured, and one sandwich with butterscotch pudding for dessert. I've no doubt that some are taken aback by its brevity, but there's a lesson here for those who are willing to listen. Baratin is the epitome of "Do Less, Do It Better," combining a tiny, stripped-down kitchen and the very best local, seasonal produce to extract more flavor and joy from six plates than most menus get out of sixty. I've visited six or seven times now, usually sampling three or four dishes each visit, and I haven't had a single one that was less than delicious. This curated approach of taking limited resources and energy and putting them into making dishes better rather than making more of them is a practice many would be wise to emulate, and one can only hope that here is where the trend is kicked off locally.

Crispy Plantain with Black Bean DipDominic Armato

Of course, it doesn't hurt to have somebody like Charleen steering the ship, and her style explodes off every plate. The "snack" of roasted Campari tomatoes, elephant garlic and olives was one such salvo, textbook Veggie Whisperer Badman, extracting maximum flavor out of a handful of great ingredients. This fellow arrived HOT, the resulting juices meeting up with olive oil to create a fabulous, sweet, pungent mess in the bottom of the plate. Another riff on the same flavors (a different day, naturally) bathed Castelvetrano olives in a light tomato sauce so heady with saffron that we smelled them a few paces away. Here, simply serving the whole olives piping hot made for a delightfully novel spin on what might have otherwise been a more typical dish.

Peach, Fresh Mozzarella, Pistachio SaladDominic Armato

Of course, some of the snacks fall more in line with the traditional sense of the word (though I'll happily snack on roasted Campari tomatoes any day). Crisp plantain chips, sliced longitudinally to an almost paper-thin thickness, were fried to an airy, light crispness, salted and served with a spritz of lime and black bean dip. With the dip, Charleen refused to emulate the spackle-like consistency of most black bean dips, instead suspending tender whole beans in a light but flavorful puree, more the consistency of a light black bean soup, oozing cumin and garlic while mimicking the fresh, light character of the chips. A sprinkle of cotija cheese completed the dish, simple in construction but elevated by an exceptional amount of care.

Chicken and Couscous SaladDominic Armato

Charleen's got a way with salads as well, and though I only stole a fleeting taste of this one, lest my ladylove start getting territorial on me (and rightfully so). But a simple salad of peaches, fresh mozzarella and toasted pistachios, with a dressing just tart enough to play off the peaches without getting distracting, is so refreshing when measured next to so many overwrought salads that lose their fresh essence, and works only because of the flawless ingredient selection and careful, restrained balance. The salads, of course, are not always so dainty an affair. Shredded chicken, tender and juicy with just a whisper of mesquite smoke came together with chilled couscous, sungold tomatoes, red sorrel and a couple of other collaborators for another atypical concoction that had some gravity while still maintaining fresh, light, distinct flavors.

Pickled Shrimp and MusselsDominic Armato

I'm hopelessly addicted to the "Potted, Pickled & Cured" section of the menu. Have I just become a vinegar fiend? I don't know. But in a pretty darn good eating year, some of my greatest joys have been found four lines down on the Baratin menu. The Pickled Shrimp and Mussels have been making frequent appearances as of late, and while half of me is always excited to see what shows up next, half of me doesn't want to let this one go. The plump mussels and shrimp were lightly pickled with fish sauce, vinegar and sugar and tossed with fresh herbs. To accompany, pickled carrots, a hard-cooked egg, crisp grilled bread rubbed gently with raw garlic, and a creamy sauce the composition of which I couldn't nail down, but suffice it to say that it's rich and garlic and ginger prominently featured. For somebody who makes a habit of gathering a crowd and ordering half the menu (or, in Baratin's case, all of it), it's a rare occasion when I find myself thinking that I could stroll on over, park on the patio, order this dish and a glass of rosé and leave wanting for absolutely nothing.

Grilled Trout RillettesDominic Armato

My feelings about the grilled trout rillettes are no less enthusiastic... so much so, in fact, that my delight at my five-year-old's ability to destroy something as sophisticated as trout rillettes with horseradish cream was sharply at odds with my annoyance that that was MY trout rillettes he was destroying. I've since returned solo and rectified the situation. The rillettes are simply fish, oil, herbs and a whiff of smoke, simultaneously light and meaty and beautifully accentuated by a subtle, light horseradish cream and an assortment of pickled vegetables. The bread has body, even more so when carefully grilled, and there's nothing on this plate that isn't improved by a chunk of beet-stained egg. The whole thing is so satisfying, and so expertly done.

Lemongrass Turkey SandwichDominic Armato

I'd be happy before even getting to the sandwiches, but I'm thrilled they're there. The lemongrass turkey sandwich was a delight, tender and thickly sliced with a smidge of sriracha mayonnaise and a cool, crisp slaw of carrots, cucumbers, cabbage and onions, perked up with a splash of fish sauce. There's an obvious comparison here that will occur to most but which I'm not going to make because I kind of feel like it's unfair to put this sandwich in a box like that. It deserves to be praised on its own terms. It was delicious and so carefully done, right down to the perfect, crisp edges on the bread. Not to be outdone, a sandwich take on the peach and mozzarella salad above puts those theme ingredients between toasted focaccia and adds bacon, which is a killer combination. When I first arrived here, I was taken aback by how Arizona peaches weren't the sugar bombs that I grew up with. But I've come to appreciate that subtlety, and I like how in this case the lack of overwhelming sugar actually works better with the sandwich.

Peach, Mozzarella, Bacon SandwichDominic Armato

As though the menu at Baratin is somehow lacking for vegetables, the last slot on the menu (dessert excepted) is specifically devoted to them, and in usual Charleen fashion they're hyperseasonal and gussied up just enough to make them new and interesting without getting away from their natural essence. On my most recent visit, I rather enjoyed a plate of roasted Brussels sprouts with pickled onions, lemon, and a blast of fresh tarragon. But the vegetable that's been blowing my mind lately in more than one instance is corn. The first time I had corn at Baratin it was grilled and served alongside padrón peppers, slathered with pimentón butter and finished with cotija chese and cilantro. It was so fabulous, that natural combination of corn and green chiles, the smoky scent of pimentón... a natural combination, but done so carefully and with such fabulous ingredients that it was one of the most memorable corn dishes I've had.

Corn with Crispy Shallots and Fish SauceDominic Armato

And then, on a subsequent visit, I had another that completely blew me away and almost made me forget about the first. Charleen's been playing with a lot of Vietnamese flavors recently, and this dish was such a brilliant integration thereof that I still marvel at how natural it seems. The corn was grilled over mesquite, and then dressed with a shockingly intense fish sauce reduction, clear and sweet and a little viscous, almost like a salty anchovy liqueur, and to finish it was generously topped with crispy fried shallots. I can barely express how much I enjoyed this dish, and that such a pungent, intense sauce could work so well with delicate sweet corn was completely magical. It's so simple, and I'm still in awe of how brilliant of a dish this was. I'm really, really hoping to see it again.

Brioche Doughnut, CajetaDominic Armato

There is, of course, Charleen's widely-beloved butterscotch pudding, and it's tough to ask for a much better finish than that. But I confess that I've gotten into the habit of taking a few steps next door to Bodega to nab one of her brioche doughnuts (though they've always been more than happy to nab one for me), and when it's available, a jar of Muñeca Mexicana's Cajeta de Celaya, a sweet, deep and wonderfully complex evaporated goat milk caramel, produced locally by one of Charleen's former line cooks, Minerva Orduño Rincón, and sold in small Ball jars that are always rendered half-empty before I even walk out the door. Charleen's doughnuts aren't quite the same when they aren't fresh out of the fryer, but even off-peak they're pretty damn good, and frankly, any vehicle for that cajeta is welcome.

So to be clear, when I say I find myself enjoying Baratin even more than FnB these days, it certainly isn't because I think any less of FnB than I always have. It's just that this kind of stripped-down, picnic-ready version of Charleen's food strikes a resounding chord with me. This food is so soulful and so vibrant, rustic in appearance but so careful in composition that its refinement is almost stealthy. I eat this and I think about how we commonly think of refined food as very carefully crafted, cleanly presented, sanded down and buffed until it shines. But the food at Baratin, to me, flies in the face of that convention, demonstrating that refined is not synonymous with prissy. A chaotic-looking pile of chicken, couscous, tomatoes and sorrel can be just as carefully crafted as a meticulously chopped and finely plated ring mold tower of the same, and often it's more honest. There's an abundance of honesty and joy in this food, which means there's an abundance of flavor, which means I often find myself trudging off to do some exploring and researching when what I'd really like to do is just go back to Baratin.

7125 E. 5th Avenue
Scottsdale, AZ 85251
Wed - Sun11 AM - 8 PM
Fri - Sat11 AM - 10 PM


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