Since the war in Yemen began last year, getting permission to enter the country has become a complex process. A recent call to the country’s embassy in D.C. was fruitless on the visa front but concluded with a recommendation: “You really must try Yemen Café, in Brooklyn. They have all the best Yemeni food there.” The friendly advice of a diplomatic official is usually ignored to the detriment of the advisee, so a trip to Cobble Hill, on whose northern extremities the café perches, amid a cluster of Middle Eastern shops and restaurants, was soon conceived. (Another branch is located in Bay Ridge.)
Yemen Café has three rows of tables, at the end of which a television screen beams images of the owners’ home country: green rolling hills, the majestic mosques and towers of Sana’a, a traditional dagger, or janbiya. Decorative fish peer out of a tank at the diners, a mix of Yemenis chatting in Arabic and young couples muttering in Brooklynese. “I want to have creative control,” a guy in a crimson sweatshirt labelled “Pigalle” recently told his date. “But he does have the resources to get it made.”
Dinner invariably begins with marag, a soup made with lamb or chicken that saturates the atmosphere with saline vapors. The liquid is murky but it sparkles with citrusy zest when it hits the tongue. Yemen’s cuisine is full of such unique flavors, so don’t simply order classics like baba ghanoush or hummus (or, as M. Pigalle would have it, the mixed grill). As an appetizer, the foul, a dish of mashed fava beans, onions, and tomatoes which arrives, bubbling, in a black clay pot, is exceptional. Scoop it up using a piece of flatbread and bask in the warm earthiness of the beans.
For the main course, choose between the fish of the day, simply grilled and slathered with a spicy tomato paste, or a variety of lamb dishes. Among these, the slow-cooked lamb haneeth is best; supple strands of meat pull away from the bone and have a sweet, musky taste. Also worth a try, although a little more rubbery in texture, is the massloug lamb, sautéed and boiled for three hours and accompanied by a pile of rice topped with okra and potatoes.
For some reason, the best finale at Yemen Café, the fatah with honey, is on the “Appetizer” section of the menu. The misplacement should not deter you, however, for this huge dessert of pulverized bread, splotched with creamy butter, is delicious. Eat as much of it as possible, washed down with a cup of sweet tea, and rejoice: bagged and transported home, it makes an excellent breakfast. (Entrées $12.95-$21.49.) ♦