The setting is a tent. Robed and bearded men sit in a circle around a cast-iron pot as flames lick the sides. Grasping gobbets of charred flatbread, they swipe them in the pot and ferry bites of the brown bubbling goo to their lips. In the rocky desert of Yemen, where the mosque towers soar like bony white fingers and men still wear daggers called jambiyas in their belts, this ritual of communal dining is one of the strongest traditions.
On a recent sweltering Tuesday evening we re-enacted the scene as we circled our own pot of goo at Atlantic Avenue's latest Yemeni restaurant. Sanaa is named after a walled city famous for its architecture, which resembles a beige wedding cake trimmed with white lace. Our cast-iron pot contained salta ($6), a stew of lamb tidbits, potatoes, and dried okra. The okra pods swell during cooking to become succulent morsels. As we discovered afterward, you can buy these dried pods in nearby Middle Eastern groceries, threaded like necklaces on white string. The okra only provides half of salta's marvelous sliminess, though. The rest is furnished by a fenugreek-seed emulsion called hilbeh, which might be mistaken for whipped egg white as it floats on top. For an extra $8, you can have a roast lamb shank or a half-chicken added as a subsequent course.
Salta is served with round, smoking-hot breads, which are delivered to your table as you need them. And you'll be needing plenty, because they're the best part of the meal. It isn't often you get to eat bread that good hot out of the oven. Besides mopping up stews, this bread is used to make fattah ($14), a makeshift porridge miring torn bits of bread and chunks of boiled lamb in cooking juices. My mouth waters just thinking about it days later. Worth worshipping on its own is the dessert version of fattah, which molds cracked wheat into a convex shape, using smooshed dates and honey as glue. You'll hesitate after one bite, then revisit the hubcap again and again.
Sanaa aims to function as the Middle Eastern diner of choice on this stretch of Atlantic, competing with older Lebanese and Syrian establishments. Thus, the menu features salads, bread dips, shish kebabs, and vegetarian entrées galore, in addition to the Yemeni stuff. There are what seem to be inventions, too. We ordered the lascivious-sounding chicken cream chops ($10.95), which turned out to be a righteous riff on wiener schnitzel, a pair of pounded chicken cutlets paved with sesame seeds and deep-fried. And man, these dudes really know how to fry! Tops among vegetarian choices is maklouba ($8.95), which begins with a mountain of basmati rice, on which are heaped five or six sautéed vegetables lightly sauced with tomatoes and herbs, like something invented by hippies in the 1960s.
Anything made with beans is a good bet. The lentil soup ($2.50) is creamy and orange and powerfully flavored with garlic, but even better is foul madams. Technically part of the breakfast menuwhich also includes liver and the dish of minced kidneys called kalawifoul is a thick plain stew of fava beans. An alternative white-bean version is equally delicious, and both come festively ensconced in cast-iron crocks. Either gives you another excuse to get your mitts on that bread too.
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