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Who Tells the Truth to a Cook?

Yara Lebanese Cuisine Needs an Honest Friend

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YARA LEBANESE CUISINE, which opened on N Mississippi in January, has had a while to iron things out. Over the course of three recent visits, service has been remarkably inconsistent, the food has been average, and waits have been long and unpredictable. This is all in a restaurant that could hardly be called busy. A little reading between the lines—and a little actual reading—suggests an owner who left the corporate restaurant world to bring his personal recipes to the public, but whose friends and family weren't adequately helpful or assertive with their pre-opening feedback. It's a terrible problem with friends: They're nice.

They're also not paying customers. Food we would be delighted to accept in a home environment would typically be unacceptable in a restaurant. Minor and major details are forgiven. The lamb has a grainy surface texture? At least my host cooked lamb, that's intimidating! The falafel are too moist in the middle? Hey, at least they tried to deep-fry something! What a pain!

Not only did Yara open in a flourishing neighborhood in Portland—a city with a saturated market and discerning customer base—but it's located a stone's throw from two of our best outlets of this type of food: Wolf & Bear's and Cedo's Falafel and Gyros. I strongly recommend the team at Yara gets some takeout from each, puts it next to their own, and starts asking hard questions. Here are a couple to help get started.

I mentioned the falafel earlier. They're the backbone of this cuisine. My first impression was that these were from a mix, but the abundance of turmeric in the blend and the far-too-few bright green flecks of parsley suggest it's fresh. Either way, on repeat visits they were nearly mushy in the middle instead of moist and tender, and lacked an appealing surface texture: more smooth, firm corn fritter than rough, sandy, and crunchy chickpea snowball.

Side dishes are massive and monotonous, and would work better if they were half the size and half the price. Hot tuna ($7) is a half-pound of chunked and shredded warm tuna in a gently spicy, indeterminate red liquid, with a dash of chopped cilantro. It needs salt, a variety of textures and flavors (raw onion, mint?), and a more complex sauce. The foul mudammas ($6) are beautifully textured and rich fava beans, but unless you're sharing the serving with four or more, it's needlessly large. Hot potato ($6.50) almost works thanks to a sauce that tastes a bit like sesame, but suffers the same fundamental issues, and just begs for a poached egg on top.

Kofta kabab ($12 plate), grilled skewers of spiced ground beef, are well seasoned and charred on the outside, but a bit skinny and dry. Any dynamism and life the meat has expires halfway through one of the two quickly cooling skewers.

Shawarma sandwiches ($8.50) are generously sized, and come on house-made flatbread, but look better than they taste. They're filled with soft-on-soft textures, rich-on-rich flavors, and are dying for crunch and acid. The same amount of filling in bread half the size—with more crisp vegetables and a brighter sauce—would be a far better sandwich. The arayes ($8.50), finely ground lamb and beef spread inside thinly rolled fresh pita and grilled crisp like a quesadilla or crêpe, also looked flame-blistered and enticing but tasted boring.

We ordered the lamb shank ($16.50) twice. It's well-browned and succulent meat, presented plainly on a mountain of yellow rice, and comes with both tzatziki and a genuinely spicy red condiment that reminds me simultaneously of harissa and ajvar. A curious dish of deep-fried zucchini and cauliflower came with it one time but not another (and when it did come, it came 20 minutes before the shank). Deepening the mystery was the waitress' claim that the browned, slightly crisp vegetables were "oil poached, not fried." If I were Sherlock Holmes, I'd say that they didn't know what was going on, either.

A few bright spots come to mind after all that. Sambousek ($6.50 for two) are rich little baked hand pies, made with fresh pita dough and generously stuffed with feta, parsley, and olive oil. If you're ordering a sandwich, their quarter-inch, fresh-cut french fries are crisp and golden. Their house-made baklava is delicious: tender, generously filled, and not overly sweet.

Yara's problems are easily identified. The food is not as good as that of peers in its immediate vicinity. What it can offer that its competitors can't—comfortable seating and table service—is diminished by timing issues. The owner is clearly motivated by a personal pride in his food—he spices his Turkish coffee with fresh cardamom and advised me thoroughly on the best method for re-heating our leftovers—but there's still significant dissonance between his vision and the market standard.

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