Bab al Yemen: Destination-Worthy Middle Eastern in Bay Ridge
Bab al Yemen
413 Bay Ridge Avenue (69th St.), Brooklyn, NY 11209 (b/n 4th and 5th Aves.; map); 718-943-6961; babalyemenrestaurant.com
Service: Eager to please and courteous, but a little confused
Setting: Charming, clean, earth-toned way station on the spice trade, with an excellent bathroom
Must-Haves: Lamb segar hummus, Yemeni omelet, Fasolia, Fattah B'Tamr
Cost: Most dishes $7 to $17, expect to pay $15-20/person for a shared meal
Fall is a busy time for eating out in New York. Chefs both new and beloved are opening hosts of new restaurants; food events are plentiful over the Fall months; New Yorkers, perhaps in preparation for the holidays to come, are still going out despite the events of the past week, many with an eye to what's new and exciting right now.
So it may seem like an odd time to talk about a two year old Yemeni restaurant in Bay Ridge. But if the Serious Eats credo is anything, it's seeking out delicious food wherever it's found. And while Bab al Yemen has been reviewed by other food publications before, it's still very much an under-reviewed restaurant. Sure, critics have filed about the place, and it's no secret to chowhounds hip to the Middle Eastern dining scene. But unlike nearby Tanoreen, Bab al Yemen is rarely included as a part of New York's ethnic food canon. Which is a shame, because it's easier to get in without a wait, and like Tanoreen is home to some of the finest Middle Eastern cooking in New York.
The food at Bab al Yemen could best be described as "celebratory casual," homey stuff like chopped lamb and bean-y things, but made rich and special by spices and subtle artistry. The dimly lit space is cozy and attractive, with earth tones all around and architectural design details taken straight from the Middle East. It's a restaurant best tackled in groups of four or greater so you can share bites from an array of stews, braises, roasted meats, and plates of mezze. This is not small plates eating the way many new restaurants would have you believe; these are joyful platters that feed amply. You'll want to sample many of them at your meal, and thanks to gentle prices (most appetizer-esque "entrées" are under $10, and almost all of the larger ones are under $20), you can.
Your smorgasbord should be required to include the Lamb Segar Hummus ($14). "Segar" roughly translates, we're told, into "chopped small bits." And so it is here: small cubes of tender lamb given new life with a parade of spices that include cumin, coriander, and cinnamon. You can order the segar on its own, but throw in a few bucks to have it plated on a bed of hummus, which is plenty buttery and almost whipped, but full of chickpea depth. There may be a couple finer plates hummus in this city, but Bab al Yemen's exceptionally smooth rendition is willing to take them in a fight. A bite of lamb and hummus together is one of those perfect bites to haunt you long after the meal is over.
To eat it, skip the fork and tear off some of the complementary khubz, toasty-chewy flatbread only slightly smaller than Captain America's shield. A note of warning: your basket of bread will never run empty; the staff watch it like hawks and refill quickly.
The khubz will also come in handy for the many stewy tomatoey dishes you can choose from, such as the Fool Mudamas ($7), which arrives in a black stone bowl that radiates heat. Everyone in the Middle East seems to do fool differently; at Bab al Yemen the fava beans are puréed with tomato, onion, and harissa-like spices for a soupy dip that's robust with the beans' hearty flavor, sweetened by onion, and touched by a kiss of heat. On one evening the fool was disappointingly thin, but at a later lunch it was as thick and dip-like as promised.
Perhaps a safer overall bet is the Fasolia ($7), white beans this time, and served whole, but also in a tomato-onion sauce that carries sharper, super-savory tones. The beans come with a slight burnt crust—"we burn them a bit give that extra flavor," a server explained—and it works beautifully. That browned-beyond-browning takes these beans where few beans have gone before: into the sultry territory of superior browned meat. Vegetarians have never had it so good.
Eggs are not limited to breakfast at Bab al Yemen, and the Yemeni Omelet ($8) is one of the stronger dishes on the menu. It arrives in another stone bowl, quaking and steaming like Korean tofu stew. Mix it up at once to incorporate the ground lamb, tomato, onion, and scallion into the yolky custard; the edges will crust over as tomato juices and yolk run amok.
There are also, of course, the big hunks of braised and grilled meat that encompass the whole of the non-mezze plates at lesser Middle Eastern restaurants. We'd pick the braises over the grilled or roasted meats. Lamb Masloog ($17) is a fist-sized brick of lamb that loses composure at a spoon's slightest provocation. It comes with braised summer squash, potatoes, and okra over rice, and a lipsmacking sauce that's lighter on the spices and heady with carrots and the essence of lamb. We preferred it to the Chicken Sal-Tah ($14), a half roast chicken served alongside a tomatoey stew of potato and eggplant with a bittersweet froth of fenugreek on top. The stew is a fine thing, made lovely by the smoky chicken skin, but dry poultry is dry poultry, regardless of the sauce.
For those looking to eat more adventurously, the kitchen handles offal with aplomb. Kilawi ($7), chopped up bits of liver cooked with tomato and onion, is tender and meaty with just a hint of funk. Order it with baba ganoush or some more hummus and you have Offal For Beginners. If you have an especially large table, you could add the self-described "Yemeni ethnic food" Aseed ($13) to your order, a mountain of chewy-creamy steamed porridge-cum-bread-dumpling in a fenugreek sauce that evokes Thanksgiving gravy as much as Yemeni home cooking. You'll eat it to feel well-traveled (hey, you did make the trip to Bay Ridge), but the heft of the starch makes it hard to dig in too deeply. Instead, consider the curve ball of Curry Yamaani ($14), which tastes like an almost tiki take on chicken curry with bright, sweet nuttiness from the addition of coconut milk. The coconut and yellow curry-like spices nearly make it taste out of place, but it's too well-done for us to mind.
If you've done things right you'll be too full for much in the way of sweets, but the complimentary tea in an adorable dinged-up pot will set you right. It's sweet to be sure, but low on the tannins that plague many Middle Eastern tea services, and if you've spent any time at Moroccan hookah houses you'll know how much more sweet it could be. If you do have room, the tea pairs especially well with the Fattah B'Tamr ($7), a mound of crushed khubz that's fried with clarified butter and mashed into mortar with dates and honey. A moat of fragrant, salty honey surrounds the mash, with little dots of more fragrant black sesame seeds, and a spoonful is all it takes to make you realize that this is the Middle Eastern edition of sticky toffee pudding, but with more salt to cut the sweetness and a rougher, more interesting texture.
Multiple visits to Bab al Yemen have left us confident in the kitchen's abilities. We can't say the same about the service, which is courteous and friendly to the extreme but a little lacking in the execution. It's not that they don't try, but you'll have to insist on those forks and share plates you asked for, and you might have to inquire about a missing item on your order. But these are forgivable things, missteps that the quality of the food, and the genial smiles of the staff, easily overcome.
What is it, exactly, that separates a good Middle Eastern restaurant from a great one? Perhaps it's the capacity of the place to take you somewhere else completely: to build an experience convincing enough to make you think, if only for a few hours, that those browned onions and cinnamon-laced sauces have swept you up, Oz-style, and dropped you in a wholly different place. Any fault along the way—a dish that doesn't really measure up, a harsh experience with service, a suspicion that the flavors are not as genuine as they ought to be—is enough to bring that entire illusion down. But Bab al Yemen keeps it running, and splendidly. The place is not new, but it deserves to be celebrated all the same.