Sometimes catching just a couple snippets of a nearby conversation will leave you in a quandary.
For example, you hear the word “hummus” at the end of an otherwise indecipherable question from another table. You’re not even listening, really – that is until the restaurant manager mentions “Sabra.”
Was it some sort of joke? Were they flipping through cell phone photos? Would a kitchen of Yafa’s caliber rely on pre-packaged hummus? Two words with no context can really shake you up.
For the record, they make their own hummus. It’s a traditional version, sparked by a little garlic. But the hummus bi lahine – “Jordanian Hummus” on the menu – is layered with minced beef, tomato and pine nuts to accumulate a hefty, rustic quality with bursts of bright fruit and a mellow, toasty hum. It’s all quite nice.
And that’s an apt summary of every dish at the popular Mediterranean spot in Carmel. Compare it to a pleasant afternoon in the sun. What makes it so agreeable is difficult to pin down – the warmth, the company, the setting? Nothing stands out, and yet you enjoy the day.
A swarthy char from the grill notches an acrid streak into chunks of lamb, giving the kebab an open-pit character. The meat falls easily into the sharp, garlicky clutch of tzatziki. It’s simple and familiar, with a refreshing tabbouleh alongside. Lentil soup swells with a dusky earthiness. The broth is thin, yet equally basic and warming.
Mishmish chicken wears a drape of apricot (mishmish) chutney well. The brunt of bitter zest in the jammy dressing is borne neatly by smoky scorched edges on the meat. Slivers of almond flirt with the richness in the sauce as well as its terse bite. Perhaps the chicken is a tad on the dry side, but the dish is all about chutney, which balances a marmalade bite with a fruity sweetness.
So, yeah – nothing to gripe about, no real wow factor. All good.
Yet glancing back at the Weekly’s original 2013 visit to the then newly opened Yafa, there’s a mention of “cinnamon-y potpourri” in the overtly fragrant rice. This time around, however, they plate a rather deadpan pilaf. And the whiff of saffron said to be in the mishmish six years ago was absent. But there’s nothing wrong with downsizing, especially when everything remains so even and so pleasant.
The staff is affectionate (perhaps overly so) and they try to set an enthusiastic, great-to-see-you-again vibe, even for first-time guests. Our server even set a parting gift on the table. Unfortunately, the bite-sized squares of baklava were dull and dust-dry.
Yafa was the only restaurant in Monterey County accorded Bib Gourmand status by Michelin Guide inspectors, prompting the revisit. And it’s not just us. Yafa’s Abner Hernandez says traffic into the restaurant has picked up quite a bit. The Michelin announcement came as a surprise to many, including the staff.
Other than the baklava send-off, Yafa doesn’t disappoint. Michelin worthiness is another question.
YAFA Junipero and Fifth, Carmel. 4:30-10pm daily. 624-9232, yafarestaurant.com