April's Can't-Miss Dish

Lamb Mandi at Bab Al-Yemen
Credit: Chris McIntosh
By Ellen Bhang · 04/03/2023

Looking for a no-fail, mouthwatering, gonna-tell-your-friends-about-it plate? Each month, Boston Globe columnist Ellen Bhang highlights the dish you need to try right now—and something to sip alongside it. 


Lamb Mandi at Bab Al-Yemen


On the plate: Lamb Mandi  

Where to find it: Before opening Bab Al-Yemen in Kenmore Square a year ago, restaurateur Ahmed Mahmood had to leave New England to enjoy the dishes he grew up eating. “If I ever wanted to eat Yemeni food, the closest place to go was New York,” he recalls. “So the idea came to try and bring Yemeni cuisine here.”

Mahmood, born in New Mexico and raised in Yemen, is well-positioned to introduce Bostonians to the vibrant Middle Eastern fare of his youth. His family operated several Yemeni restaurants in Malaysia, and he ran Fava Bean Mediterranean, a lunch-focused falafel eatery inside the CambridgeSide mall. When the pandemic led him to shutter the fast-casual spot, he began developing a new venture: a sit-down, all-halal spot in Boston, celebrating the cuisine of his heritage. Today, in a thoroughly renovated space that once housed the original location of French bistro Petit Robert, Bab Al-Yemen showcases the vibrant fare of the country located at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula.

Named for the ornate main gate of Yemen’s capital city Sanaa, the restaurant’s main floor has two distinct dining areas with design elements that remind Mahmood of home. The front section is a comfy, shoes-off space outfitted with traditional floor cushions and framed by qamaria-style windows (colorful stained glass named for the Arabic word for the moon). Of course, if you prefer to leave your shoes on, you’re welcome to take a seat at one of several tables toward the back. No matter where you sit, you’ll spy fellow customers sharing puffy rounds of freshly baked bread—piping hot from the kitchen’s traditional, Yemeni-style clay tanoor oven—and tucking into fragrant dishes of roasted meat and rice.

Notes on the nosh: One of those generously portioned plates, Lamb Mandi, exemplifies what Bab Al-Yemen’s kitchen is turning out. Like all of the dishes on the menu, this main course is based on one of Mahmood’s mother’s recipes. It features a roasted lamb shank so tender that you only need a fork to separate meat from bone, resting on sunflower-yellow basmati rice seasoned with turmeric. “Mandi,” Mahmood explains, refers to a traditional Yemeni technique where meat is cooked for hours in an underground pit. To adapt the approach for the restaurant, the kitchen team rubs a little cumin and coriander into the shank, braises it low and slow, then finishes it in the oven. 

The beauty of the preparation is in its simplicity. The cooks here want to show off the excellent quality of the meat, which they get from a halal butcher in the Bronx. The plate, served with a cup of broth or a side salad of greens, is topped with a scattering of caramelized onions. It  comes with a ramekin of sahaweq, a fresh, salsa-like sauce of tomatoes, minced green chilis, and garlic; but you can also opt for a version of the condiment blended with feta cheese—just ask for the sahaweq jubn.

Sip alongside: Yemeni Cocktail—a smoothie made with mangoes, bananas, strawberries, dates, and a splash of low-fat milk—is delightfully refreshing alongside the lamb. View the glass goblet from the side and you’ll see stripes of Vimto, a brand of raspberry syrup ubiquitous throughout the Middle East, drizzled liberally throughout the frothy, alcohol-free drink. 

Blended with water, Vimto is frequently sipped to break the Ramadan fast. That beverage is also a common way to welcome guests into one’s house; so it seems only natural that Mahmood would showcase the syrup in one of the restaurant’s drinks. It’s just one more way he and his team like to welcome you into their home away from home.

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