Science of the Lamb

There's a new kid on the block in Little Italy, and pasta is not what they're pushing. But the recently opened Yemen Arabian Restaurant (411 S. High St., [410] 385-4900) has lamb down to a science. Whether it comes chopped up as shawarma and rolled in a pita, crammed in chunks on kebabs, or slow-roasted in tender hunks for the house specialty haneez, you really don't want to miss out.

My first taste of Yemeni food was at a restaurant called Sana'a (named after Yemen's capital) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where they served a whole leg of lamb atop a mound of fragrant basmati rice. That thoroughly authentic, lip-smacking, finger-licking meal set my standard for Yemeni cuisine, which is distinctive among Middle Eastern food, and Yemen Arabian Restaurant upholds that standard quite well.

Take their national dish, salta ($19, $8 for a side), a cross between a soup and stew. The savory base of ground lamb and vegetables is dolloped with a bitter fenugreek foam that tastes like nothing I've ever had before. Bolstered by sahawiq, a salsa-like condiment of tomatoes, onions, and cilantro, the dish is oddly addictive scooped up with the thin pita-like bread it is served with, but I could have easily enjoyed it over a bed of rice as well.

The loubia ($18) did come with rice. Though the menu calls it "Yemeni risotto," it's actually a hearty stew of lamb chunks, zucchini, tomato, and onions in a peppery, cumin-based sauce that soaks up the rice. They also make this dish with chicken, as they do with many of the other lamb-centric offerings. (Beef is conspicuously absent from the menu, and the only fish offered on the day of our visit was catfish, though they say the fish offerings vary by availability.) The menu also misleads with its description of Yemeni galabah ($18) as a dish of "minced lamb." I was pleasantly surprised to find a stir-fry of tender strips of meat sautéed with onion, tomato, and cumin-a dish I'm told is traditionally served for breakfast.

If you want to cut to the chase, however, go for the haneez ($18), a generous portion of Chef Hamood's famous whole-roasted lamb served over rice. Maybe it's the sheer simplicity that makes this lamb so good-it's neither fatty nor gamey, and definitely a dish to be revisited. A veteran of establishments in Brooklyn, and Dearborn, Mich., both home to a significant Arab populations, the chef knows his game well, and will even prepare a whole lamb for you on special order.

For appetizers, the restaurant features traditional Middle Eastern favorites like hummus, lentil soup, and fattoush salad, a mix of fresh tomato, cucumber, lemon, oil, salt and crunchy pita chips, but venture off the eaten path and you will be rewarded. The fasolia, a dish of white navy beans sautéed with onions, tomato, cilantro, and cumin, scooped up with pita, will have you hooked, and the sautéed lamb liver will make you wonder why you hated this organ meat as a kid.

As with many establishments I like, the quality of the décor is inversely proportional to the quality of the food, so don't expect anything fancy, and go for lunch instead of dinner because you'll pay roughly half-price for pretty much the same dishes, depending on the sides-though the lamb or chicken shawarma, at $5 and $4 respectively, are always a great buy. And while you might want to skip the sorry iceberg lettuce salad that accompanies each entrée, be sure to try some of the complimentary lamb soup, which is scrumptious. Less than a year after Ozra opened nearby, Yemen Arabian offers a new spin on Middle Eastern food and proves itself another welcome oasis in pastaland.

Yemen Arabian is open every day from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

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