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.
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.
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 ($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 ($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.
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.
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 ($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 ($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 ($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?"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.