Some restaurants are defined by that one special dish. For Carl's Deli, it's the Reuben; at Mai Lee, the killer pho; and no one should leave Lombardo's without trying the toasted ravioli.
At Baida, that dish is the m'lwee.
The m'lwee, like the rest of Baida's menu, is traditional Moroccan fare, made all the more surprising by the fact that the chef is an American. Owners Abder and Assia Meskine enlisted chef Jeremy Bowman (formerly of Lola and Eleven Eleven Mississippi) to help them translate their vision and spent days pouring over Assia's recipes and giving Bowman a crash course in Moroccan cuisine. The result is a menu that features traditional homemade specialties true to their North African origins married with the experience required to run a professional kitchen. Entrusting a stranger to carry forth the culinary heritage of their country was a gamble, but it paid off for the Meskines.
Since opening in the fall, Baida occupies a South Grand storefront that has seen several iterations of ethnic eateries. The space is simple. A few elevated tables sit in the front windows, surrounded with tropical plants and a few decorative tagines, but the overall look is somewhat Spartan. What the atmosphere lacks in warmth is made up in the hospitable service we received from every person we encountered. Servers were well-versed in the menu, which is imperative for newbies.
While the m'lwee stole the show, it isn't Baida's only noteworthy dish. The loubia appetizer was a slow-cooked white bean stew, almost like a Moroccan chili — tangy from the tomato base, with a slight, pleasant smoke. It was served with a side of what the menu describes as "housemade sesame bread," although it seemed more like simple flatbread, and we weren't sure if we were supposed to use it to eat the stew, like a hummus. Instead, we cut out the middleman and dug in with spoons.
The bastilla was a tasty chicken pie, mostly sweet but somewhat savory. Baida used a flaky pastry to serve as the crust and layered it with moist minced chicken. What made the appetizer special was the topping of caramelized onions and honey infused with cinnamon, giving it a sticky-sweet glaze. Almonds added some crunch, and a dusting of powdered sugar amped up the sweetness.
Couscous, the dish synonymous with Moroccan cuisine, was moist and fluffy, seasoned with cilantro. We ordered the vegetable option, which was positively stuffed with lima beans, a variety of mushrooms, zucchini, large slices of tomatoes and whole marinated artichoke hearts. Bucking tradition, Baida serves the couscous with a side of broth that adds moisture and flavor.
The mixed grill, a platter of lamb, rib eye and chicken, was fair, if not a little boring. The lamb was well seasoned. The chicken was kicked up with a slightly spicy marinade and had the pleasant taste of a slight char. All were served on a bed of vegetable couscous accompanied with some fennel butter and harissa, a spicy, peppery sauce. The dish was not earth-shattering, but it's a safe choice for less adventurous eaters.
Like couscous, tajine is another staple of Moroccan cuisine, and we tried two of Baida's five offerings: the seafood and the lamb. Both were served traditional style in the cone-shaped clay pot, stewing in a mixture of cooking liquid and vegetables. The seafood tajine had a rich, warm masala-like tomato flavor and featured cod and shrimp. Both were cooked well, although I would have like to have seen larger chunks of the cod — the fish had unfortunately broken apart into very small pieces. The lamb, on the other hand, was tough and slightly gristly, having not broken down enough. But the broth was delicate in body and full of fava beans, tomatoes and artichoke hearts. The flavors were so good that I might order it again, hoping for some better pieces of meat.
And then there's the m'lwee.
Calling m'lwee a meat pie is like calling foie gras liver, but that's essentially what it is – layers of flaky phyllo dough wrapped around the most succulent kefta, or ground beef, one could imagine. Think of it as spanakopita that got tired of being a vegetarian. The kefta is seasoned with garlic, cumin and coriander, and slow cooked so that the spices infuse the meat's juices. This rich, meaty mixture is encased in a buttery phyllo pouch, which is pan fried, giving it a subtle nuttiness. The thing that makes the dish is how each bite drips with a spiced, meaty jus while the dough remains crisp. The m'lwee also came with a side of harissa to cut through the richness of the kefta, but it was unnecessary. I wanted nothing to take the flavor away.
To end on a sweet note, we ordered briwat, the Moroccan equivalent of baklava, layered with almonds and honey in a flaky pastry. The plate was topped with a simple drizzle of honey. It hit all of the flavors one wants with dessert — buttery, nutty, crunchy, a little bit salty and a little more sweet. The dessert comes with warm sharing plates that soften the almond-honey filling and extend the fresh-out-of-the-oven feel. This was a lovely touch for an already spectacular dessert.
Baida is a welcome addition to the St. Louis food scene (it's amazing that it's the first of its kind in the area), giving patrons the chance to get to know one of the world's great cuisines. I'll be back again and again for the m'lwee — this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.