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Shibam!

Perfect winter food near the corner of Court and Atlantic

Hadramawt is a narrow wadi—or valley—that snakes its way through the craggy mountains of Yemen near the Empty Quarter desert. Snuggling the cliffs like a mini-Manhattan, the ancient city of Shibam sprouts eight-story adobe skyscrapers encircled by mud-brick walls six feet thick and 20 feet high. Utilizing an alternative spelling, Hadramout is also the name of the latest Yemeni addition to the narrow wadi of Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue, close to the dreadful desert of the rail yards development site. Not as visually prepossessing as Shibam, the restaurant occupies a plain walk-down box decorated with a few travel posters, sporting a halal menu featuring roasts of lamb and chicken served with rice or pitas. Pick the pitas: The hubcap-size flatbreads are killer, brought smoking from the oven in seemingly endless quantities. Though entrées range from $11 to $14, this includes three belt-busting courses.

Your meal begins with a pungent bouillon laced with curry powder, floating tidbits of celery, cilantro, and carrot. It's so good, a friend wondered out loud one evening if she could take a quart home. Next arrives an oblong plate of salad dabbed with French dressing—the viscous orange fluid that ruled the iceberg age before the coming of the baby lettuces. While this slow-moving substance of uncertain composition has been discredited in our finest refectories, it functions admirably in this context. The meal also includes as many Styrofoam cups of hot sweet cardamom tea as you can knock back, a boon on the coldest days. In fact, the mustachioed proprietor displayed legendary Arab hospitality by inviting us to come in anytime to warm ourselves with a free cup. "We're open 24 hours," he grinned.

Salta, Yemen's national dish, announces its arrival with a sky-cracking sizzle, from a cast-iron crock borne ceremoniously across the room. Inside you'll discover a bubbling pool of brown goo, a hot dip for pitas flaunting tidbits of lamb and vegetables, surmounted by a scum of foamy white stuff that looks like something surrealist chef Ferran Adrià dreamed up. Simple egg white? Goodness, no. This emulsion of ground fenugreek seed constitutes one form of hilbeh, a Yemeni folk remedy—though remedy for what I've never figured out. Maybe for the malaise that sets in after gazing perpetually at austere expanses of sand and rock.

Day-old pitas are used to make fattah, a makeshift porridge along the lines of Mexican chilaquiles. The one listed among the starters ($5), soaked in honey and dotted with nigella seeds, is more dessert than appetizer. Note that honey is the Hadramawt Valley's most famous export. The main-course version of fattah compounds gravy and meat with torn pitas, making a mellow porridge. Given the size of the dinners, appetizers are unnecessary but make lively small meals. Foul ($5), the Middle Eastern stew of fava beans, tastes eerily like Texas chili. While the baba ghanoush has a disturbing pickle flavor, the "egg served with tomatoes and onions" is a nifty, coarse-textured omelet that might better be tagged "egg tabbouleh."

Though the menu offers more than it can deliver (we never, for example, tasted assid—a giant white dumpling reminiscent of African mashes), the roast lamb leg alone, served on a bed of perfumed rice with little heaps of curried vegetables, would be enough to bring anyone back.

 
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