Certain dishes — hummus, baba ganoush, shawarma — are common throughout the countries that line the shores of the eastern Mediterranean, but telltale differences in ingredients and techniques create variations from city to city, and even from cook to cook.
At Yahya's Mediterranean Grill & Pastries, for example, chef Yahya Ameen adds a touch of pomegranate molasses to his baba ganoush. There's just enough of the syrup to balance the natural bitterness of tahini, but not enough for the tart, fruity flavor to overwhelm the eggplant that comprises the bulk of the creamy spread. Such touches make nearly everything on the chef's menu stand out as just a little more special, a little more memorable, than the fare at the typical, diner-style Middle Eastern eateries found throughout Denver.
Ameen was born in Turkey but also lived in Syria and Iraq, picking up inspiration from the food he ate along the way. After cooking in restaurants in Texas, Ameen became the chef at the Boulder location of Ali Baba Grill, a small chain of Front Range eateries specializing in Lebanese and Persian cuisine.
At the beginning of March, he took over an outpost of Ali Baba Grill at 2207 East Colfax Avenue, wedged between a Noodles & Company and a Which Wich. He put his name on the sign above the door, but otherwise there's little to suggest the surprises within. Inside, though, ornate wooden shutters decorate the walls, and Ameen or one of his family members is always there with a warm greeting, ready to chat about the menu, which Ameen expanded to include his own creations, both sweet and savory.
Ameen's experience cooking a wide range of Mediterranean culinary styles is apparent in the spinning cone of chicken shawarma, visible from the dining room as it slowly turns a deep golden brown on the vertical rotisserie. The chef seasons and stacks the chicken on the skewer himself, and the result is juicy and full of flavor. Smaller, sword-shaped skewers hold kofta (ground lamb), kobidah (ground beef) or tawook (ground chicken), all liberally spiced and grilled so that the wavy surface holds just the right amount of char. Beyond what we typically think of as street food, Ameen also excels at meats on the fine-dining end of the spectrum, including whole grilled quail, whole fish and succulent lamb chops.
When Ameen is up front waiting on tables and ringing in to-go orders, his wife takes his place in the kitchen, stirring up soups loaded with herbs, grains and legumes, or making sure that the falafel are crunchy from the fryer. Loaded into a pita, those falafel make for an inexpensive lunch packed with tangy, nutty flavors from the chickpeas and a sauce that seems little more than tahini cut with lemon juice. A hefty falafel pita with a side of fries or soup will ring in at less than $10, tax included. Or for slightly more, go with a platter and indulge in some of the creamiest hummus you'll ever taste.
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As good as the lunch and dinner offerings are (Ameen also plans to open for breakfast), the real stars of this spot are the pastries. Right now they make sporadic appearances in the deli case, but they'll soon be regular menu items. Ameen and his family are in the process of moving from Boulder to Denver, and without the long commute, he'll have more time to create baklava, kanafeh (a shredded pastry soaked in rosewater syrup with a cheesy filling) and basboussa (a sweet semolina cake). Drawing from his Turkish heritage, Ameen will also offer borek, savory phyllo pastries filled with meat, spinach or cheese.
Denver already had an abundance of Middle Eastern restaurants serving nearly identical dishes without much inspiration. So Yahya's already stands out, and thanks to its chef, it promises to only get better.