Don’t chew, just swallow

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It doesn’t seem like a good thing to hear when you’re at a new restaurant trying new food: “Don’t chew, just swallow.”

Last weekend, a group of us decided to go check out Bab Al Yemen, a Yemeni restaurant in Bay Ridge that’s gotten a ton of  press. The advice to not chew, just swallow, accompanied a dish called aseed, essentially a mound of what seemed like uncooked dough  in a gravy-like sauce. It came with two ramekins of some other sauces that we were supposed to pour on top before eating.

To be honest, it tasted as weird as it sounds. I don’t say that lightly. Being a champion of Korean food, and a very personal one at that, has made clear to me that one person’s weird is another person’s staple. I forget sometimes, being surrounded by adventurous friends with very broad palates, how unnerving certain Korean textures and flavors can be to people who are unfamiliar with it. I know I shouldn’t, but sometimes I feel offended when Korean food is described as stinky or slimy.

So it was good for me, in a way, to be tasting something that seemed really strange, and frankly not good, to me. At least one review said we were supposed to eat it with our fingers; another mentioned a raw scallion chase. We saw no scallions, and we scooped up the dough with our spoons. Two friends did like it, but even they couldn’t finish the very generous portion we were served.

But almost everything else we ate there was the opposite of the aseed, a less jarring balance of familiar and new.

The restaurant, first of all, is not as exotic as the reviews would lead you to believe. The space is warm and golden, and there is an artistic flourish that you don’t see in most Middle Eastern restaurants in Brooklyn — the tea kettle faucet in the bathroom is conversation-worthy. But it feels more homey and cozy than sumptuous, and the men digging into the food in the front room looked as comfortable as regulars.

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The meal started with a very simple and delicious salad and soup. The salad was mainly romaine lettuce, chopped tomatoes, and a tangy vinaigrette. The soup, also plain, was earthy and delicious, like lentil soup without any lentils in it.

We ordered something called a Yemeni omelette that came puffy and custardy in a cast-iron pot — this was my favorite. I don’t know how they did it, because the whole thing was very hot and well-cooked, but the yolks were wonderfully runny.

The chicken curry on hummus was another one of my favorites. But that might have only been because it wasn’t lamb.

We had lamb in fattah b’lahm, lamb in haneez (forgot to photograph), lamb in saltah; a hunk of lamb that was served with the dough. Even the omelette was studded with minced lamb.

This is probably how others feel about Korean food: “Wow, there is a lot of kimchi!”

There were a few flavors that were still jarring, like the fenugreek foam on the hot saltah. But everything was obviously made with great care, even the complimentary hot tea, and especially the special dessert called sabaya made of 25 very thin layers of pastry. The crust was almost candy-hard. The menu lists one made with 50 layers for $55; ours had half the layers and cost around $20.

I wish we had gotten to try the “fiery red glabah chicken” mentioned in the New York Times review, but there is no way we could have eaten any more food.

Bab al Yemen isn’t going to replace my Bay Ridge favorite, Tanoreen, any time soon, but it’s a pretty ideal place for a culinary adventure — new but inviting.

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