COBBLE HILL – Up until now, all the restaurants I’ve reviewed for BKLYNER have been places I didn’t know. They’d caught my eye, were newly opened, perhaps were recommended, whatever, so when I sat down in front of my plate of food, I was always in an unfamiliar setting tasting something new.
Yemen Café on Atlantic Avenue is different. It has been my go-to dinner spot whenever I take classes at the Brooklyn Wine Exchange around the corner at 138 Court Street. I have a paper menu in my desk drawer with items I have tried highlighted in yellow: so far eleven appetizers, three lamb dishes, and three chicken. When a group of friends decided it would be fun to go there for dinner and then cross the street to the hookah lounge, I was definitely in.
I liked this restaurant from the moment I’d first sat down at a table and moments later the waiter, unbidden, swiftly brought me a piping bowl of marag, the broth or stock in which the restaurant slowly simmers its meats. Squirt a piece of lime into the soup flavored with spices, onions, and tomato, to add tang, then search the flavory depths with your spoon. If you are lucky, you’ll discover a juicy chunk of lamb.
I’m not a quantity over quality kind of guy but there are other free perks that make a great first impression like the complimentary salads, baked flatbreads, and large tea dispenser in the corner from which you can help yourself to unlimited cups of hot chai, straight or mellowed with some sweet evaporated milk from a can.
The salad, a pretty basic affair of iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumber, is transformed by the zhoug, a spicy dressing made with cilantro, jalapeno, garlic, and tomatoes. If you use it all up on your salad, ask for more because it doubles as a hot sauce perfect for any of your main courses.
After some discussion, guided by Bashar who originally hails from Yemen, our group settled on two lamb dishes, Massloug (stewed) and Haneeth (slow roasted), chicken Fahsah, and grilled fish. The lamb sat on top of a large round platter heaped with orange and yellow hued rice flecked with green bits of scallion, the perfect complement (along with the bread) for the succulent meat.
The Massloug and Haneeth look different but both fall off the bone “like buttah,” as they’d say on Coffee Talk. Don’t be surprised if you discover something a bit unusual as you break apart the meat—a stringy, worm-like vein or an ear-shaped piece of cartilage—they just add to the flavor.
The Fahsah, bubbling in a hot clay bowl, similar to the sizzling Korean dishes you crack a raw egg into, had the consistency of pulled chicken.
The Yemen Café is not the best place for pescatarians or vegetarians. It’s listed by Yelp as one of the “go-to” places in NYC for lamb. There is only a single vegetarian entree, a mixed vegetable stew, and I am not certain that the fish was even on the menu.
You’ll be further pleased when you get the extremely reasonably priced bill, something harder and harder to find in New York. Foregoing dessert (we were quite full), we instead ventured across the street to Mocha Hookah, for an after-dinner smoke.
Mocha Hookah is both a restaurant and a hookah lounge, but stick to the tobacco. We walked past the diners (and some smokers) in the front room directly to the loungey, darkened back room and planted ourselves on a long sofa with cushions burned by dropped coals. There, only men, mostly by themselves, sat quietly with their water pipes, ignoring the two large TV screens on either end of the room. Arabic wafted softly in the air.
We idled away the next few hours in conversation, drinking sweet mint tea, puffing smoke rings tasting of blueberries, apple, sweet caramel and licorice, winding down a very pleasant evening.
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