In the 1890s, Atlantic Avenue south of Brooklyn Heights became the center of the city’s burgeoning Arab population. The original residents were Lebanese and Syrians, but in the ensuing decades, they were joined by Jordanians, Egyptians, and Palestinians. The latter half of the 20th century saw a divided Yemen, and in the 1970s, many immigrants arrived from the southern People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. In the East Village, they ran newsstands and candy stores; at the corner of Atlantic and Court, they established a miniature real estate empire that came to include retail stores, apartment buildings, and four restaurants.
Gradually, much of Brooklyn’s Arab population has migrated southward to Bay Ridge. Two years ago, Bab al Yemen became the first restaurant of its type to be situated within sight of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. Just recently, rival Yemen Café; claimed its own South Brooklyn beachhead. The new place is located along a bustling stretch of Fifth Avenue that feels like a Middle Eastern souk: Filigreed brass cookware dangles in glinting displays, bakeries mount racks of baklava in their front windows, and groceries flaunt barrels of olives in shades ranging from deep green to purple to midnight black. And everywhere, carried by the evening’s maritime breezes, the smell of roasting meat perfumes the air.
Follow the delicious odor into Yemen Café to dine on a long-cooked lamb shank of immense circumference. Called haneez (lunch, $11; dinner, $18), the ovine ankle is cooked in a clay-lined oven called a taboon, which squats like Jabba the Hutt at the rear of the establishment and flickers merrily. The walls of the dining room are lined with sumptuous photoscapes of walled cities rising out of the desert. Although not quite as luxurious as Bab al Yemen, Yemen Café is perfectly comfortable, and the hosts are so hospitable, you’ll feel like you’re dining in someone’s living room rather than in a restaurant.
The shank surfs a dune of basmati rice—each 10th grain colored yellow with turmeric—moistened with a pool of curried potatoes and root vegetables. That plate would be dinner enough, but there’s more. It comes as part of a set meal that begins with a bowl of lamb consommé, then proceeds through a profuse green salad in a mild vinaigrette. The host will ask if you want seconds. You’ll begin to detect strong French influences on a cuisine that more loudly proclaims its ancient Arab and Turkish roots. Additionally, the meal includes as many hubcap-size flat breads as you can eat, which arrive smoking hot from the oven at regular intervals. You could make a meal of these alone, they’re so good.
The roast chicken ($8, lunch; $12, dinner) is nearly the equal of the shank, with a perfect crisp skin. You could also pick chicken or lamb kebabs, chicken or lamb curries, and chicken or lamb masslougs, the meats long braised in a spice mixture the menu is pleased to call a mirepoix—there’s that French connection again. The spicing scheme renders the flesh yellowish and tender and certainly includes aniseed, cardamom, and powdered ginger. In a rare recipe native to southern Yemen called zorabian, morsels of chicken or lamb are mixed with rice and sweet spices in a recipe that might remind you of Indian biryani. Like the lamb shank, all main courses include the belly-busting set meal.
Although these dishes are well turned out and plentiful, all can be found in various forms in any of the lands once trod by camels. More adventuresome souls will seek out tribal Yemeni dishes that include the national dish of salta ($18, with your choice of side meat), a bubbling cauldron of gravy with foamy white gunk on top. The bubbly topper, known as hilbeh, is a fenugreek emulsion that demonstrates that the Arabs were into molecular gastronomy long before a twinkling star foretold the advent of Ferran Adrià. Sit with your friends around the pot while dipping torn pieces of pita into the salta and know what it’s like to live in the desert.
Strips of the same bread inundated with butter, drenched with honey, and sprinkled with oniony nigella seeds make up a wonderful menu selection called fatah ($7). It’s about the only thing at Yemen Café that resembles dessert, though it’s probably more of a breakfast porridge. Liver cubes receive nearly the same buttery treatment. Other notable apps include a baba ghanoush artfully sculpted as if by the wind and an okra platter that makes the adjective “overcooked” seem like an understatement.
But really, why explore the starters and side dishes when the set meals are so voluminous, cheap, and redolent of sand and sun?