Bab al Yemen Wields Daggers and Cauldrons
For years, the city's limited collection of restaurants serving the food of Yemen has been confined to the corner of Court and Atlantic streets in Cobble Hill, where the current count is three. Imagine my surprise when a journalist friend texted me about a new one he'd stumbled on four miles south in Bay Ridge. While the older Yemenis are bare-bones operations, offering a small but shifting catalog of dishes each day, the new place, called Bab al Yemen, makes everything on its sizeable menu, providing our most comprehensive take on the national cuisine to date.
The interior is far more sumptuous, too. Large, colorful paintings of the Bab al Yemen (a 1,000-year-old gate in the city walls of Sana'a, the nation's capital) are installed in dye-cut metal frames, part of a metallic theme that also includes hanging lanterns and wall-mounted sconces, along with ornate trays and tea services. Seating is in a well-windowed front room, with further tables along a hallway leading to the kitchen. These back booths are outfitted with curtains, so that the most observant Muslim families may eat with a modicum of modesty.
Nevertheless, the patronage is still mainly male. But whatever your sex, you'll receive a warm welcome from the proprietor, who works the room wearing a mawaz, a long, narrow skirt with a curved dagger at its belt. Don't worry, he's not going to stab you with it—unless, of course, you don't finish your dinner. If you like simple roasted meats at bargain prices, Bab al Yemen is your destination. The heart of the menu features roasted shanks, kebabs, and delicate chops of lamb, with a few chicken and fish selections providing variety. These are served in table d'hôte fashion, preceded by a free soup (a perfect French consommé), a salad with a tart dressing, and a vast plate of rice and stewed vegetables, with the meat sitting on top like a Middle Eastern emir.
My favorite is the haneez ($18), an assortment of lamb cuts that the menu describes as "slow roasted to perfection," proving that even this excellent restaurant is not immune to the blandishments of the menu writers. A set of five thick lamb chops, sending up clouds of ovine fragrance as they arrive at the table, will set you back only $17. Then there are combinations of lamb, fish, and chicken intended to be eaten by an army of diners, and stewed dishes as well, at the same level of fundamentality, which may remind you of medieval cooking in Europe. Chicken masloog is the best stewed selection, an enormous half-bird boiled in what the menu describes as a "mirepoix" (a mince of vegetables that provides flavoring)—there's that French connection again.
The roasted and stewed selections constitute what might be described as the banquet cuisine of Yemen, eaten when friends and family gather around the table at midday for an auspicious feed. More interesting—but harder to get used to—are the often off-the-wall selections that form the daily diet in much of that country. Aseed ($13), the national dish, is a giant dome of kneaded starch something like African fufu, sitting in a lake of strong broth. It comes with a sauce of emulsified fenugreek, a spice beloved of Yemenis, whipped into a froth in one of the earliest occurrences of the science-chef mentality.
Another country-style Yemeni dish is saltah ($17), a bubbling cast-iron pot of fenugreek-laced goo that, were it bigger, might make a nice prop for a production of Macbeth. Dip in pieces of the giant, cooked-to-order flatbread called roti. As you dredge around in the bottom of the pot, you'll find vegetables and lamb, and, at your request, the cook will pour some very spicy chile relish on top, which smells like Scotch bonnet peppers. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that appetizers are also available, to be scooped with the unlimited supply of rotis provided. My favorite is the Yemeni omelette ($8)—egg, minced lamb, and vegetables, which comes in the same cast-iron cauldron.
Your meal ends with a tea service featuring sweetened cardamom tea served on a filigreed tray, with glasses that must be carefully grasped to avoid burning your fingers. The host will ask if you want more tea, and you should answer "yes," since dining is usually a rapid affair, with the most important part, to Yemenis at least, being the relaxation and conversation afterward. But it's considered poor form to accept more than two refills of the pot—even the notorious hospitality of the Arabian Peninsula has its limits.
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