It's hard to imagine why a successful restaurant would vacate a prime Inner Sunset site just when that neighborhood's new restaurant row is burgeoning. But recently, YaYa Cuisine folded its handsome Ninth Avenue tents and moved to Clay Street. "Of course the rent was one factor -- it doubled," says owner/chef Yahya Salih. "I still could have made it -- but I have two kids to raise, and I've really always wanted to be downtown."
After a decade of enjoying Iraqi-born Salih's unique versions of Middle Eastern fare at his previous addresses (before the Sunset, YaYa was in SOMA), I was intrigued to learn he'd considerably expanded the menu at the new site. Along with adding several fresh seafood dishes and beefing up the vegetarian selections, he's increased the breadth of focus. Previously serving "the cuisine of Mesopotamia" -- the ancient civilization between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq -- YaYa's overstuffed bill of fare now embraces the wider Fertile Crescent, including Salih's inventive variations on dishes from Syria and Israel. "This is not about politics," Salih says. "I'm only interested in good food, and good food brings people together." I didn't ask if he uses ancient designations for his homeland mainly to keep Americans from thoughts of Saddam.
Coincidentally, my neighbor Mary Ann, a lapsed cooking-school grad, apprenticed as line-chef at the SOMA YaYa 10 years ago, and shared my eagerness to check out the new site. We found the restaurant oddly located on the border between the Financial District and Chinatown, halfway up a gloomy block between the Transamerica Pyramid and Portsmouth Square. Amid Clay Street's grimy exteriors and cheap Chinese luncheonettes, YaYa's rich blue door-sign marks an anomaly -- the only "real" restaurant on the block. A picture window on the "lunch" side of the house reveals a giant grill, where kebabs sizzle night and day. "My sweat and tears are on that grill," said Mary Ann. "There were just the two of us at that hole in the wall on Eighth Street, Yahya and me, doing two-fisted cooking, everything at once. The moment I turned my back on a sauce, the cream would curdle. 'Just once, Mary Ann,' Yahya would say, 'just once in your life, make a perfect sauce!' "
We were seated on a banquette in the prettiest part of the colorful dining room, inside a miniature Moorish "castle" partly walled off by a blue archway topped with crenelated microbattlements. Lavash (the Kate Moss of Levantine flatbreads) and squares of a dense yeast bread came with several relishes. Mary Ann and her sweetie Nick instantly covered lavash slices with dilly pickled cauliflower and daikon, kalamata olives, parsley, and feta cheese, and rolled them up to eat. (Nick got the lone, tiny dollop of aioli -- about a half-teaspoon's worth, too skimpy to share.) TJ and I dipped the thicker bread in a ramekin of olive oil seasoned with fresh herbs and sesame seeds. We asked for more of everything, but the rule of restaurants is, the fewer patrons present, the less attentive the service. Since only two tables were occupied, our server was too busy to remember our request.
The sanjabeen salad ($5) was a species of Sumerian Caesar, with arugula leaves deliciously dusted with fresh-grated Parmesan in a light, minty dressing. A fierce fatoush ($6), with an oddly spiced mustard vinaigrette, included strong-flavored Italian parsley and mint, cherry tomatoes, thick rounds of a slim, near-seedless cucumber, toast cubes, shredded onion civilized by a sumac marinade, and wafers of enchanting grilled eggplant. (The eggplant can be had as a separate appetizer.) Nick picked a pair of herb-marinated grilled quail ($5) on a bed of light, creamy hummus. The quails' flavor was pleasant, but they're wee bony birds and would be bettered by removal of at least their rib cages. I can never resist ordering YaYa's signature appetizer, ravioli ($4.50) stuffed with dates, cardamom, and cinnamon, sprinkled with olive oil, ground walnuts, and Parmesan, served atop a minty herbed yogurt sauce. Salih's current version, with miniravioli, is an improvement over the earlier, standard-size rendition: The higher pasta percentage helps balance the sweetness. Many diners (including Mary Ann and the waitress) nonetheless regard the dish as a dessert served before its time, but very similar appetizer ravioli are also savored in Italy's Friuli region (per Carol Field's magnificent new cookbook, In Nonna's Kitchen), so perhaps they're not all that outre after all.
Just as exotic are the house-made cold fruit drinks, called sharbat (the root of the word "sherbet"). A sweet quaff made from raisins and mint syrup ($1.50) was intense and unique, while the "house drink" of pomegranate juice with GewYrztraminer ($3.50) was terrifically refreshing, a vibrant blending of tart juice and sweetish wine. The wine list was pleasing, too, with informative descriptions of bottlings from all over (Chile, France, Italy, several regions of California) and very reasonable prices (about double wholesale), mainly in the upper teens.
A spectacular new entree is seafood biriani ($15), a neat dome of kenafe (aka kataiff), phyllolike dough shredded to superfine threads, cooked very crisp and enclosing a filling of shrimps and scallops (cooked firm but not dry) and shockingly delicious potatoes. The seasoning involved chopped lime, cinnamon, cardamom, and cumin, and the sauce was rich, creamy, and touched with an elusive sweetness. The menu lists raisins and almonds in the filling, but we didn't actually see any -- more likely, after liquefying raisins for our drink, Salih might have added some raisin juice to the sauce. "Yahya cooks a lot by the seat of his pants," said Mary Ann. "He just follows his inspiration."
Vegetable dolmas ($12.50) were my pick, a favorite entree at Ninth Avenue, with distinctly different seasoning than the familiar Greek or Palestinian dolmas: Hollowed out eggplant, yellow squash, tomato, and good, sweet grape leaves were stuffed with ultra-long grain rice strongly seasoned with complex herbage (dill and mint predominating) and a modicum of pepper, and were glazed with a heavily dilled yogurt sauce. Salih's own current favorite is Jerusalem kebe ($13). Jerusalem is considered the Kebe Capital of the Universe, with variations from throughout the Middle East. Salih's version is a sort of Levantine soul food with stuffed rounds about the size of Chinese pork buns, consisting of thick falafellike shells around a filling mingling Swiss chard, onion, mustard, and eggplant. (The menu also includes the better-known ground-meat bulgur shells, Mosul kebe, billed as "the oldest dish on earth, 3000 BC"). The Jerusalem kebe are served atop bamia, a powerful, interestingly sour sauce-stew of pureed okra, tomato, tamarind, and dried spices.
From the famous grill, we tried lamb tekka kebabs ($12.50), lamb cubes marinated in herbs and sumac. The meat was a little overcooked, but a bed of "eggplant ratatouille" carried through the attractive grill flavor, bringing eggplant and tomato together in smoky, gooey unity. A trinity of broccoli, sweet carrots, and squash added to the variety, and a little bowl of tasty bulgur wheat with mushrooms completed the array.
Our desserts (all $4.50) were as unusual as the rest of the meal. A very white cube of semolina pudding, called "Baghdad Night," wore a thin crusted-cream glaze, streaks of chocolate syrup, and a faint perfume of rose water. "It looks like grits," said Louisiana-native Mary Ann. It didn't taste like grits; it tasted clear and mild, like some slightly sweet white cheese. Kahi (which could be nicknamed "Baghdad Morning") has phyllo shells filled with a sensuous white custard, over a pool of tart raspberry puree. "It's the cousin of blintzes -- I love it!" I exclaimed after two bites. "See, all Semites are cousins, this proves it." Later, chatting with Salih, I learned that kahi is indeed Mesopotamia's blintz-equivalent: "In Baghdad, it's a special breakfast," he explained. "The filling is kemir -- in Iraq it's made from cooked water-buffalo milk." (If you're familiar with other cuisines of the region, you may know it as kaymak.)
Our dinner left a world of entrees still untasted: trout with pickled mango aioli; sumbusuk (sorrel, shiitakes, and feta in phyllo dough); grilled salmon with pomegranate aioli; bourak (richly spiced ground lamb in phyllo); kuzi (shredded lamb shank in phyllo with pomegranate rosemary sauce); perdaplow (chicken, rice, and almonds in phyllo, with berry sauce), and of course those Mosul kebe (with apricots) .... Although it's a longer trip for me now, I'll have to follow this fetching nomad down to Clay Street. Yahya Salih just keeps evolving and inventing, and each of YaYa's incarnations is more interesting than the last.