Underdogs exude a mysterious magnetic force, one unsubstantiated by scientists but understood by Chicago Cubs fans and anyone who's ever filled out a bracket for March Madness. Don't believe me? Just try to resist the pull of that upstart thirteenth seed.
This force is far less powerful in the food world, where instead of rooting for underdog eateries, people write scathing online comments. Yet there's something about a homespun Mediterranean cafe called Yaffa's Savory that exerts this kind of pull.
2200 South Monaco Parkway
Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday
Israeli salad $4.95
Olive hummus $5.95
Grandma's silk soup $4
Chicken soup for the soul $4
Signature panini $7.50
Fricassee panini $7.50
Three salad platter $9.95
Vienna chicken schnitzel $9.95
The cafe, lost in a wasteland of empty storefronts off Monaco Parkway and East Evans, doesn't have reclaimed beams or pendant lamps or even a liquor license. It doesn't have six-minute eggs or a chef who breaks down hogs in-house or produce grown in the back yard. It doesn't even have very good food. But it does have heart, lots of it, and so far, that's been enough to fuel the operation.
The heart comes from Yaffa Hanouna, an Israeli-born cook with soulful eyes, long, thick hair, and a melodious voice that would be perfect for audiobooks. The youngest of ten children, she learned to cook when she was young. "My mom always said to me, 'You grew up in the kitchen; there was no room in the house,'" she recalls. Not until this winter, though, was Hanouna ready to turn what she'd done on the side — running baking workshops, selling products at farmers' markets and working as a personal chef and caterer — into a full-time career.
She opened Yaffa's Savory in February as a deli selling her full line of products, including olive tapenades, preserved lemons and baked goods. And after three months and numerous customer requests, she added tables and an all-day menu of soups, panini, hummus platters and a mix of Mediterranean entrees.
The best dish is one she learned at her mother's side, a soup she calls "chicken soup for the soul." There's nothing fancy about it, just housemade chicken stock, chicken, chickpeas and vegetables. But the stock isn't as salty as seawater, as many store-bought soups are, and the vegetables are thicker than thieves. Like any good home cook, Hanouna varies the recipe depending on what she has — and she must have had extra carrots on her hands the day I ordered a bowl of the soup, which was almost entirely orange. Follow the soup with one of the crispy panini, made on large circles of pita and stuffed with everything from tuna and hard-boiled eggs to artichoke hearts, feta, spinach and tomatoes. That latter combo is dubbed "Yaffa's Signature" and comes slathered with evergreen sauce, a dairy- and nut-free basil pesto that sells well in the market. Although the bread isn't made in-house, Hanouna has her eye on a pita machine made in Israel that might change that.
The panini are big, so big that if you get a bowl of soup and split one with a friend, you'll have a more than adequate lunch. But if you want the signature and she wants tuna, you might wait so long for your second panino, you'll wonder if the press broke mid-sandwich. Hanouna isn't alone in the kitchen — two prep cooks help her — but the waits for everything can be uncomfortably long. And when food does arrive, it's often dish by dish. "We don't have the ability to keep food warm," our server said one day, explaining why our meal kept coming out in dribs and drabs.
Hummus is another popular choice, with batches made as often as five times a day to meet demand. Blended with housemade tahini, which is far fluffier than the dense jarred versions, it is pleasantly light on a bit of pita. The hummus is also light in garlic, lemon and salt, however, so make sure to liven it up with a dollop of green-olive tapenade or harissa.
Hanouna describes herself as an "explorer," and says she has more than 4,000 cookbooks in her home collection. The menu at Yaffa's reflects this spirit, as it wanders around the Mediterranean. Pastilla, a Moroccan specialty with ground turkey (standing in for the traditional pigeon), almonds and saffron eggs inside a sugar- and cinnamon-dusted phyllo shell, wasn't the exquisite dish I ate one night in Fez, but it wins points for trying. So does the salad platter, with hummus, shredded beets, lightly dressed fava beans and a Moroccan carrot salad with cumin and spicy harissa.
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But the food isn't always that impressive. The borekas, a thick layer of spinach sandwiched between phyllo, was soggy and dense, with no hint of the airy crispness you'd expect from the paper-thin dough. Grandma's silk soup, with lentils, chicken, chickpeas and celery, was bland and watery. The chicken kabobs in the shishlik were under-marinated and overcooked, while the accompanying wedges of green peppers, zucchini and onions were one crunch away from raw. Mint, like lemon, can save a lot of things, but it wasn't enough to make us take more than one bite of the kafta, because the meatballs were so dry. Breading has a way of making a dish addictively crisp (why else would anyone eat fried pickles or fried green beans?), but that's only true if the breading makes it to the plate; my chicken schnitzel came out half-naked, with wide swaths missing breadcrumbs that must've stuck to the pan. And what should have been a refreshing Israeli salad, with diced cucumbers, tomatoes, green peppers and romaine, was so drenched in oil that it was practically swimming.
Hanouna says she misses the constant interaction with customers that she had at the farmers' markets she frequented, which might be why she's so often found in the front of the house, encouraging you to try her chicken soup and sharing stories from Israel or Paris, where much of her family now lives. (That explains the French feel of the décor.) But what she should also tell you — preferably before you order — is that her food is designed with special requests in mind, as if she were still the personal chef for a medically restricted client. Food is made with little or no salt (while that worked with one soup, it makes most dishes incredibly bland), and desserts are low in sugar. "I put in 50 percent of what a recipe calls for," she told me, which was probably why the village biscotti reminded me of the hardtack that sustained sailors on long voyages, and why, at a table of sweet-tooths, none of us finished the baklava or chocolate babka.
A home cook with a big personality who wants to make people happy, Hanouna seems to be feeling her way through the wild world of restaurants. You long for her to realize that she's now cooking for the public, not clients with dietary restrictions, and that food tastes better with proper amounts of sugar and salt. You long for her to find better help (I once heard the front-of-the-house manager say, "I don't know; I don't eat the food"). You long for her to figure out timing, so you can be in and out in less than an hour and a half. Above all, you long for her to make the fixes that could make her place a winner.
Because in the restaurant business, these glitches make Yaffa's an undeniable underdog; the clock is ticking to see if she can address the issues and pull off an upset.