Restaurant review: Yemeni Restaurant

G.A. Benton, Columbus Alive

To the ever-lengthening list of cuisines available in Columbus, add Yemeni.

Yemen borders Saudi Arabia and the Arabian Sea, but its cuisine is largely distinct from its Middle Eastern neighbors. In the case of Yemeni Restaurant, which opened in a Northeast-side strip mall in May, Yemen's long history with India is particularly evident.

Some relevant backstory: The Arabian Sea is part of the Indian Ocean, and this geography led Yemen to establish a trade relationship with India that reaches back to the time of the Roman Empire. At Yemeni Restaurant, you'll find naan-style bread, chai-like tea, biryani-type dishes and delicious stews that resemble extremely mild curries.

You'll also find a setting as simple as this place's name. But when you enter Yemeni Restaurant - which is tidy and sometimes as quiet as a study hall - you might not find a server.

That happened to me, so I approached the counter, asked "Hello?" and was quickly led to one of the padded gray-and-black booths. The no-frills room, which is divided into quadrants, also sports knick-knacks, two private dining areas and gripping photographs of everyday Yemeni life.

Although certainly friendly, service is frequently confusing. But the very pleasant food comes out quickly and, if you don't mind constantly asking for napkins and eating everything with a spoon - including salad - you'll get a lot of good-tasting bang for your buck here.

Alcohol isn't offered, but that soothing, chai-like beverage - Adeni Tea ($1.50) - is milky, fragrant with cardamom and cloves and pairs well with this cuisine. So does the terrific banana-and-tropical-fruit smoothie dubbed "Cocktail" ($3).

If food items look hard to pronounce, they're easy to eat. For instance, Fasoulia ($7) is a huge plate of uncommonly tangy kidney beans topped with tahini and stewed with chopped tomatoes, onions, green peppers and garlic. That litany of stewing ingredients appears in most dishes, and the dishes are often accompanied by flatbread and sahawiq - a garlicky and addictive, if fiery, salsa.

Entrées are supposed to come with a house salad or soup ($4 and $1 á la carte, respectively). When they do, the colorful and lemony salad is nice enough: chopped romaine, carrots, tomatoes and cucumbers topped with a ranch-style dressing possibly made with yogurt. The interesting soup is a delightfully earthy, lamb-based broth called maraq.

If you enjoy a soulful, chicken, tomato and vegetable stew, try the excellent and accessible Chicken Agada ($11). Caveat: The small poultry bones that the incredibly tender meat falls off from while cooking are included, so chew with caution.

The menu describes Lamb Haneeth ($13) as the restaurant's "most popular dish," and after eating it, I understand why. An enormous serving of slow-roasted lamb and tomatoes is teamed with vegetables (potatoes, zucchini, carrots) and basmati rice livened by saffron, cardamom, cloves, fried onions and golden raisins.

When an order of Chicken Mandi ($13) arrived, although the roasted half-bird was somewhat dry, it was an identical preparation - and was missing the menu-advertised nuts. Did I mistakenly receive the Chicken Haneeth ($12)? I was told I got the right dish.

If you like mild lamb curry served with naan bread and special effects, get the fantastic Lamb Fahsa ($9). Presented bubbling hot in a clay pot, it easily feeds two hungry people.

So does an oniony version of Shak-Shookah ($7), the egg-and-tomato dish popular throughout the Middle East. Yemeni Restaurant makes it with scrambled eggs instead of the usual poached.

It's hard to understand the turbulent geopolitics that have lately made Yemen a country of unfortunate headlines, conflict and poverty. Will eating at this humble-but-friendly and worthy restaurant render Yemeni culture more familiar to outsiders? Possibly. Will it get them a delicious meal and a great deal? Definitely.

Yemeni Restaurant

5426 Cleveland Ave.,

North Side