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Friday, March 11, 2011

Queen of Sheba

Who do you think you are? The Queen of Sheba? This was a popular accusation during my childhood, when my mother wanted to reprimand a sister who was acting spoiled or lazy - a mortal sin in our New England household and one of such magnitude that a Yemenite notable had to be brought in to make the point. Along with Timbuktu, apparently a place to far to go, these places were the extent of my working knowledge of the Middle East and Africa.

I had heard that there was an Yemeni restaurant in Bay Ridge. An online search quickly revealed the only candidate, Bab al Yemen. So, on a rainy night, I ventured out to Brooklyn with a friend to see what Yemeni food was all about.

Slipping in for a menu for review before commitment, I was immediately greeted and asked if I wanted to experience Yemeni food. Only seconds had passed and I saw the tip of the hospitality iceberg we would experience. Our waiter, Waleed al Jahmi (upper right photo), who turned out to be part owner with his brother and chef Abdulghani (top center photo), gave us a complete explanation of every food category in a little primer that he called Yemeni Food 101.

I'm not going to tell you that a trip to Bab al Yemen is to transport you to another time and place. For that, I suggest you book a flight to Yemen. Speaking to Waleed*, a business school graduate who was so articulate and city savvy, will let you know that you are in New York City, not at Bab al Yemen (the gates of Yemen).

However, I will tell you that if you are looking for authentic food and service that rivals the most cordial and hospitable you may ever have in the five boroughs, then I would make a journey to 413 Bay Ridge Avenue in Brooklyn. I have learned that Yemen is known for its hospitality, so I am not surprised that Yemen was at one time referred to as Arabia Felix, Latin for Happy Arabia.

We strove for authenticity in all our food choices, which was easy with Waleed as guide. My companion had Haneeth, I had Fahsah. Every meal comes with khobz, the traditional Yemeni flatbread, cooked on premises in their clay oven. We also had my favorite Middle Eastern dish, Fool Mudamas. The Yemeni variant was delicious yet quite different from the Egyptian style I am most familiar with (see here).

One of the real highlights for me was the extraordinary conviviality we experienced with Waleed and the staff. Every imaginable question was answered - and I had plenty of questions, knowing virtually nothing about Yemen or the culture. We spent quite some time discussing Sana'a, the capital of Yemen, the photos of which graced the walls. I was so intrigued with the architecture, climate and lifestyle. The entire staff was Yemeni, so we got our education from people who truly know the country and culture. Bab al Yemen is authentic in every way. Booths are available, even with a separate entrance for the privacy of women. At one juncture, Waleed asked Mohamed (photo middle right) to change into traditional dress for us. When I asked about the chef, I was assured he would make a visit after we finished our meal, which he did. My request for photos was welcomed including a trip to the kitchen.

It is easy to understand how serving diners night after night can easily lead to attitudes that range from perfunctory to snippy or rude - not unusual in New York City. So, I always find it remarkable when a restaurant server or owner can maintain such a fresh, cheerful and helpful demeanor. Waleed and his coworkers broke the mold on this one.

I think I need to let my sister know, that although she was led to believe that being served in a royal manner was quite sinful, I have learned it is not and that I found a place in Bay Ridge where she can go and be treated like the Queen of Sheba :)

*This is my second encounter with a man named Waleed - see one of my favorite adventures with Walid Soroor here.

Note: You can read the New York Times review here, the Village Voice review here and the New Yorker article here.


Anonymous said...

Cool place!

Leslie said...

Omg it sounds delicious and delightful! A friendly and welcoming staff makes all the difference between a mediocre experience and a memorable one.

Upper Cesc said...

I'm hungry!

Anonymous said...

There is a restaurant named Queen of Sheba on 650 10th Ave.