The younger, more casual sibling of Yaya gracefully merges Iraqi and Californian influence
DINE The brightness of Yahya Salih's new restaurant, Jannah, belies or redeems what went before. Jannah's immediate predecessor was a place called Gabin, a Korean-inflected karaoke bar that drew some spicy Yelp commentary. Before that, it was Café Daebul, also Korean-influenced, maybe a bit less commentable. Both places were, apparently, on the gloomy, claustrophobic side.
Jannah, by contrast, is all about openness. Huge plate-glass windows look onto the lively Fulton-at-Masonic street scene, while the interior consists of a vast, pillarless dining room embroidered by a bar set off by a half-wall. The main floor is an expanse of wood planks worthy of a basketball court, but the ceiling is a little low, so it would probably have to be Nerf basketball. And BYO hoops.
Salih's other city endeavor, the four-year-old YaYa (on Van Ness at the western edge of Russian Hill), manages to combine Iraqi and Californian influences to impressive effect, and Jannah does much the same thing, at a lower price point, as befits its quasi-college-town location. (USF and its hordes of collegians on budgets is practically across the street.) All the main courses are $11, and, as if that weren't enough, the list includes dishes and ingredients you don't often see, including fesenjoon (the chicken dish associated both with Iraq and Iran) and a version of masgouf, the grilled-fish preparation that is one of the gastronomic signatures of Iraq.
Of course, the menu offers plenty of items that will seem familiar, including that trinity of tasty mushes from the Middle East, tabbouleh, hummus, and baba ghanoush or, as it is spelled at Jannah, ghnooge. There's even falafel, but it's not like the falafel we generally see, chickpea fritters the size and shape of golf balls. Instead the batter is worked into a small disk ($5) and, like a pizza, topped with a tasty Mediterranean mélange of eggplant, roasted red-bell pepper, scallions, red onions, shiitake mushrooms, diced tomatoes, and feta and goat cheeses. The crust, in the best triangle-slice tradition, is sufficiently rigid even at the point to support the toppings without wilting or crumbling, and it's tasty enough to stand on its own. In an odd way, the pie reminded me of the chickpea-flour tort known as a farinata in Liguria and a socca in the south of France.
Kelecha ($3) are ravioli-like dough pockets, stuffed here with dates, cardamom, and cinnamon and topped with yogurt that's been coarsened with chopped walnuts and subtly eniched with Parmesan cheese. The menu lists this dish as a starter, with other salads and dips, but it's also just sweet enough to qualify as a light dessert. The yogurt sauce, in particular, is reminiscent of the cream-cheese frosting often found on carrot cakes.
We did think the variety of pickles ($3) tended a little too much toward saltiness especially the cauliflower florets. But the plate (which also included radish, cabbage, peppers, and olives) was a festival of slightly surreal colors worthy of the Enterprise cafeteria on the original Star Trek, with lime green, bubble-gum red, and electric yellow being well-represented.
The main courses include an array of phyllo-dough preparations that vaguely resemble pot pies: the principal ingredients are sealed in a pastry crust and baked. In the case of kubsee ($11), the pastry is formed into a squat cylinder, then filled with prawns, scallops, fava beans, chickpeas, and rice. The rather staggering roster of seasonings includes cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, almond, tomato paste, hot pepper, and sun-dried lime, and the whole thing is ringee by a smoky tomato-eggplant purée.
Sun-dried lime, incidentally, is one of those ingredients that's almost unknown in the occidental kitchen and helps give this kind of cooking a lot of its distinctive aura. To get a better idea of its flavor, you can have it as a lightly sweetened drink, a kind of Middle Eastern limeade whose sunset color won't give you any sort of clue as to what it's made of.
The masgouf ($11) features a subtly seasoned, butterflied trout a freshwater fish (often sustainably farmed now) whose pinkish flesh is reminiscent of salmon. The freshwater angle is appropriate here, since Iraqis tend to grill fish taken from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and it also lends the final result a certain similarity to gravlax. The rest of the plate consists of a heap of rice, another of tomato-eggplant compote, and a colorful honor guard of cauliflower and broccoli florets and carrot and yellow summer squash coins, all steamed and arranged around the periphery.
For dessert (assuming you don't want the kelecha or had them earlier on), how about kahi ($5), a pair of fried pastry triangles, like a child's set of military hats from the 18th century, bronzed for posterity? They are stuffed with cardamon whipped cream (which has a cheesy-thick texture, neither pleasant nor unpleasant) and are set afloat on a small red sea of raspberry purée, which is nearly an event in itself. Bright, too.
Dinner: Mon.Thurs., 59 p.m.; Fri.Sun., 510 p.m.
Lunch: daily, 11 a.m.2 p.m.
1775 Fulton, SF
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