About Ya Hala
If only for the tabbouleh and the baba ghanoush, owner Bassem Yamak’s tiny, utilitarian Lebanese cafe is worth a visit. The former is a reminder of what a good cook can do with a few basic ingredients, each bite an astonishment of bright, vivid flavor. The latter is so far from the acrid paste of most versions that you might think you were eating a different dish; the texture is silky, and a subtle smoke is evident in every spoonful. Yamak’s brother, Khaled, is the chef, and he excels with smaller plates: The labneh, a strained yogurt, is luscious and rich; the hummus is light and lemony; the handheld meat pies called sfiha are flaky and savory.
The entrées, alas, are not as rewarding as the first courses; the meats, while well seasoned, could be more tender. A swipe through the excellent house-made toum, a zesty garlic sauce, however, and a somewhat dry kebab improves considerably.
Desserts, in the Lebanese fashion, are small and lightly sweet. Don’t ignore them, in particular the pistachio baklava, which makes a fine companion to a cup of mint tea.
This article appears in the March 2014 issue of Washingtonian.