January 7, 2013

My Favorite Restaurant of 2012: Bab al Yemen in Bay Ridge

Update (9/13/13): Bab Al Yemen closed last month! :C :C :C :C WHY, WORLD WHY??? Sigh. This post shall live on as an archive of Bab Al Yemen's greatness.

Happy new year, everyone! All tens of you! I hope everyone was busy over the last few weeks doing fun holiday things. And that no one noticed that I only posted once last month. I blame it on Kåre, who insisted on fulfilling his boyfriendly duties by visiting me over Christmas and New Year's, thus killing my productivity but also giving me all the happiness. I guess that's a fair trade-off. He went back to Norway on Saturday though, which means I'm back to the single life of sitting in front of my computer for 12-hour stretches, only moving for food, water, or elimination of the two. Although I do plan on writing a "best bites of 2012" post at some point, first I'll share a post I started writing in November and then uhhh didn't finish until now.

Bab al Yemen
Bab al Yemen forever.

Charred rounds of soft-crisp, pizza-sized flat bread. Tender chunks of spiced lamb cradled in a mound of hummus. Bubbling mini-cauldrons of spiced tomato, meat, and vegetable "omelettes" with deeply crusted edges. These are the top three reasons I love Bab al Yemen so very much and why I've eaten there five times since my first visit last September, easily making it my favorite restaurant of 2012.

I don't know anything about Yemeni cuisine besides what I've eaten at Bab al Yemen, so I can't comment on its authenticity. But if all Yemeni food tastes like what I've eaten so far—only a tiny bit of what constitutes Yemeni cuisine—then I've been missing out big time for the last 27 years.

Before you read the rest of my post, I recommend checking out Max's excellent review on Serious Eats first. I mean, that's what I'm doing to give myself a better idea of what to write.

Khubz Colin and Noah vs BREAD
Colin and Noah, TEAR INTO THE KHUBZ!

First off, that hearty fresh-from-the-oven bread of my dreams. Bab al Yemen's menu just calls it "clay oven bread." My friends and I call it "BREAD I COULD EAT FOREVER, OH GOD YES." Wikipedia and Max tell me it's called khubz. The beautifully charred bread is mostly soft and a bit chewy, thicker in some parts than others, cracker-like where the crust bubbles up and forms air pockets. These generously large rounds come with many of the dishes, such as...

Hummus and lamb segar
Hummus and lamb segar

Hummus and lamb segar ($14), the aforementioned "tender chunks of spiced lamb cradled in a mound of hummus." The menu's description: "minced lamb, sautéed with onions, tomatoes, Yemeni spices, dressed with hummus." The lamb is more cubed than minced, and while it's flavorful enough on its own, its better with a thick splodge of creamy hummus cementing it to a chunk of flat bread. As for what "Yemeni spices" are, I'm not knowledgeable enough about spices to identify them from taste alone, but Max says they include cumin, coriander, and cinnamon. Luckily for my intolerance for spicy food, it wasn't hot-spicy. All my visits to Bab al Yemen have been lung fail reaction-free.

Yemeni omelette Yemeni omelette Yemeni Omlette
Omelette! Crispy bit close-up and mixed.

Yemeni omelette ($8) is my other favorite dish...so far. "Eggs, ground meat, sautéed diced tomato, scallions, vegetables, and spices served with clay oven bread." This translates into a bubbling mini-cauldron of spiced tomato-lamb-vegetable stew covered with a layer of softly cooking eggs—less like an omelette, more like a heartier version of shakshouka. Let the edges of the egg crisp up (or maybe it'll already be mostly crisped when you get it) before breaking through the yolks and mixing everything together.

Veggie yemeni omelette Omelette innards
Veggie omelette, a whole different beast.

There's also a light/veggie yemeni omelette ($8), but this isn't nearly as good as the regular one, although it is still tasty. Instead of coming out in a hot mini-pot, it's plated as a neatly domed mound of spiced kidney beans, sautéed onions, tomatoes, and scallions (fasolia?) blanketed with a thin omelette mostly made of egg whites. Considering that crispy bits and sustained heating don't conflict with light/veggie diets, I'm surprised by how different it is.

Lamb saltah Lamb saltah
Saltah with big ol' lamb chunks on the side.

Our waitress recommended we try the saltah, Yemen's national dish of "root vegetables in a rich lamb soup, served bubbling hot; topped with whipped tangy fenugreek and a side of fresh tomato chutney." It also came with flat bread and our choice of lamb ($17), the other option being chicken. If you find lamb too gamey, you should go with chicken. Because the lamb isn't spiced like the lamb segar, its funkiness is more pronounced, although not too strong for my tastes. Unfortunately, I don't have much else to say about it because...I didn't try the soup. Diana warned me that it was hot-spicy, aka a red flag for potentially giving me breathing failure, so we left it all to Kåre to eat. And eat it all, he did! I did try the fork-tender lamb, though. Good stuff.

Lamb Masloog (Berma)

Lamb masloog ($17) features more fork-tender lamb, sans spices. The menu describes the lamb as "sautéed then boiled in seasoned mirepoix for hours." Instead of bread, the first-sized chunks of lamb come with rice and braised summer square, potatoes, and okra in a spiced sauce. The moist lamb is great, but I would prefer lamb with more spices à la lamb segar.

Curry Yamaani
Curry yamaani.

Curry yamaani ($14) is "an almost tiki take on chicken curry with bright, sweet nuttiness from the addition of coconut milk," in Max's words. I'll go with that. The coconut milk-based curry with diced chicken, onions, and tomatoes over rice is light and not hot-spicy, as far as I can remember (or else I wouldn't have eaten it). I'd happily eat it again.

Fattah B'lahm

Fattah b'lahm ($17) is better than what it sounds like from the menu's description of "Yemeni croutons soaked in lamb sauce and topped with minced lamb." The "croutons" are chunks of khubz, as far as I can tell, and instead of minced lamb you get hearty lamb chunks, along with potatoes, celery, and other vegetables. There ought to be more dishes featuring soaked bread chunks, in this case, bread saturated with flavorful lamby soup stuff. I may not remember much about what the soup tasted like, but I do remember thinking, "I WANT MORE OF THIS. WHY DOES THIS NOT EXIST IN MORE PLACES?"

Fattah B'Tamr
Bread mountain.

For dessert, try the fattah b'tamr ($7). Again, the menu's description of "Yemeni croutons, mixed with dates, and clarified butter" doesn't really prepare you for what you end up receiving: a big ol' mound of khubz crumbs mashed with date bits, clarified butter, and honey, sprinkled with black sesame seeds. It reminded me of energy bars—grain (bread) and dried fruit (dates) mashed together—but non-sucky energy bars that don't taste like cardboard. It's also reminiscent of sticky date pudding. So it's something like sticky date pudding mixed with energy bars. ...Ah...nah, that's not quite right. Well. If you try it, let me know what you think.

Custard thing Baklava

We also tried mohalabya/mahalabia ($2.50) and baklava ($3). Mohalabya is a type of milk custard commonly flavored with rose water or orange blossom water and topped with chopped nuts, as far as I can tell from online recipes. I honestly don't remember much about Bab al Yemen's version besides that it was very light and not that sweet. I'd tell you what the other flavors were...if I could remember them. The baklava wasn't bad, but I wouldn't order it over the fattah b'tamr or mohalabya.

Complimentary tea Complimentary tea
Sweet, sweet tea.

If you're too full for dessert, Bab al Yemen will still finish you off with something sweet by giving you a complimentary pot of spiced Yemeni tea (shai). (You can also order a cup of tea for $1, but there's not much point since you'll get tea at the end of the meal anyway. I just noticed they also serve milk tea though; I've got to get that next time.) The tea works well as dessert because it's crazy—and by that I mean awesomely—sweet. I don't remember everything it's spiced with, but cloves, cardamom, and mint seem to be the major players. I do know there's no cinnamon; we specifically asked about that since Diana's allergic to cinnamon.

Awesome teapot faucet in the bathroom
I brought a camera into the bathroom. So what.

Last awesome thing about Bab al Yemen: the teapot faucet in the bathroom. The handle is on the lid! And the water comes out the spout! COME ON, THAT'S NIFTY.

Bab Al Yemen
Table of good things.

Head to Bab al Yemen with a group of friends and you'll eat very well, with very nice service to boot, for about $20 per person.

Bab al Yemen
413 Bay Ridge Avenue (69th St.), Brooklyn, NY 11209 (b/n 4th and 5th Aves.; map)
718-943-6961; babalyemenrestaurant.com

Posted by roboppy at 12:36 AM

Tags: bab al yemen, bay ridge, brooklyn, diana, kare, max, middle eastern, yemeni

Comments

It looks really good. Especially that bread. Looks like a huge pita bread. Although gotta say, I peeped the B santiation rating on the window there in that pic. A little off-putting...

Posted by: Larry B. at January 7, 2013 4:03 PM [#]

Happy to hear you and Kare had a wonderful holiday. :)

I live around the corner from this place,I really need to try it!

Posted by: Rebecca at January 8, 2013 11:05 PM [#]

Larry: Oh no, don't let the B rating sway you! I mean...I've always emerged un-poisoned. ;) But I'm probably atypically swayed by health ratings; a B wouldn't worry me. I'm pretty sure I've eaten in worse sanitary conditions in other cities...or...my kitchen.

Rebecca: You live around the corner?! Holy crap. Go try it and let me know what you think!

Posted by: roboppy at January 9, 2013 3:29 PM [#]

Hello Robyn, Happy New Year! Yes, after all these years I still enjoy reading your blog. Awesome post and photos. Help! Where can I find Yemeni food in Paris?!

Posted by: Janice at January 10, 2013 6:07 AM [#]

SO.
MUCH.
GLUTEN.

Posted by: Olivia at January 10, 2013 10:43 PM [#]

yum yum! that omelette cauldron looks awesome. wish there was better middle eastern food near me in the jerz. happy new yearz!!

Posted by: Janet at January 13, 2013 11:17 PM [#]

That sounds so delicious. I am really wishing that I didn't live in northern Wisconsin where the most exotic cuisine is Mexican.

Posted by: Cindy at January 16, 2013 10:27 PM [#]

Wait, an intolerance to spicy foods? But we've eaten spicy Korean food together! Hope this passes..

Posted by: bionicgrrrl at January 17, 2013 2:12 PM [#]

Janice: Whoa, happy new year to you, too! I didn't know you still read my blog! :) It's great to hear from you! As for where to get Yemeni food in Paris, google isn't getting me anywhere. :( Maybe there aren't any Yememi restaurants there. It wouldn't surprise me; there aren't many Yemeni restaurants in NYC, either.

Olivia: Aw, you can go grain-less here! Skip the AWESOME BREAD...but you're still left with awesome lamb and awesome hummus and awesome rice and etc.

Janet: Come to Brooklyn and I'll give you Yemeni food night!

Cindy: Ah, hope you get to try Yemeni food someday!

bionicgrrl: Hm...that must've been a while ago (unless my memory is super crappy)? My problems started getting bad in 2011, and I ate very little Korean food in 2012 to avoid problems. I miss soondubu though!

Posted by: roboppy at January 17, 2013 7:02 PM [#]

great place. the flan (mohalabya) was amazing. i also see you ate a bunch of things i didn't have a chance to try. :'(

Posted by: John at January 29, 2013 11:16 AM [#]

John: We'll have to eat those bunch of things another time!

Posted by: roboppy at January 30, 2013 12:08 AM [#]

My friends and I tried Bab Al Yemen last night after coming across your review/blog! It was AMAZING! Every dish & eery drink we ordered was so refreshing and good! Place was small and quaint which made everything more intimate & humble & the people next to us were so awesome to talk to. They even offered to share their bread with us, considering it was our first time there. Love it & definitely will go back for more!!!! Thanks for your awesome pics and food review!!!

Posted by: julie at March 25, 2013 3:41 PM [#]

OMG Robyn, this all looks SO GOOD. I have never had Yemeni food before, but I'm dying to try this the next time I visit NY. YUUUMMMMM.

Posted by: Michael (S.O.F.A.T. Blog) at March 28, 2013 11:57 PM [#]

I'm sorry to say Bab al Yemen is overrated. I'm tired of all the hype about this place. Yemeni natives DON'T GO THERE....because it is not quality authentic Yemeni food. The white yuppy population is oohing and aahing over it because they don't know what real Yemeni food tastes like. Next time your there look around the room...How many Yemenis are there???? That should tell you something. If you want to know where Yemenis go to eat authentic food go to Yemeni Sayed on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn or the other Yemeni restaurant a couple hundred feet from that on court Street (I forgot the name).

Posted by: Noor at April 17, 2013 12:57 PM [#]

Julie: Glad you liked it!

Michael: If you wanna check it out next time you're here, I'll join!

Noor: Sorry to hear you think Bab al Yemen isn't good. I see you've written the same comment on Yelp, so...you're...serious about not liking this place. I've tried the restaurant on Atlantic once (Yemen Cafe?) and I must admit I didn't like it as much, but since I've only tried it once I can't fully judge it.

Posted by: roboppy at April 20, 2013 1:20 AM [#]

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