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Let your tastebuds travel

New eatery in St. James serves up Arab street food

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/1/2018 (871 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Middle Eastern cuisine is having bit of a moment in Winnipeg. A recent opening in St. James specializes in Arab street food, including dishes from Palestine, Tunisia and Syria, with a focus on manakeesh, along with strong Turkish coffee and sweet pastries.

Manakeesh, a versatile flatbread, is really the thing at Yafa Café, and it’s a bargain, ranging in price from $3 to $9. The dough is yeasty and yielding, served very hot and fresh, with a range of toppings, including za’atar, a complex herby mix that here includes thyme, oregano, marjoram and sesame seeds and mhammarah, a fascinating amalgamation of roasted red pepper, walnuts and lemon that hits bitter, sweet and spicy notes.

Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press</p><p>Ahmed Salama, a Syrian refugee who found work at Yafa Café, holds Za’atar (left) and Shakshuka & Sunny Eggs (right) that he just prepared.</p></p>

Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press

Ahmed Salama, a Syrian refugee who found work at Yafa Café, holds Za’atar (left) and Shakshuka & Sunny Eggs (right) that he just prepared.

Musakhan manakeesh combines shredded roast chicken and caramelized onions with the crunch of almonds and the tart taste of sumac. Another standout involves half-moons of dough folded over rich labneh — concentrated yogurt that has the consistency of good cream cheese, but with more tang — and briny, green olives.

Spinach triangles are lemony and light, while shakshuka, a popular Tunisian egg dish, is translated to a flatbread format, with the egg spread out thin on top and lots of heat from chilies.

There are a few salads and sides, including garlicky hummus slathered with olive oil, and foule, a deliciously rich mix of mashed fava beans, cumin and garlic. In a frank admission of the tragically short life of pita, the accompanying bread comes to the table in loose plastic to keep it from drying out.

Salads include a tasty combo of orzo and chopped vegetables, though the bland canned black olives were underwhelming. We also tried to order tabbouleh, but it was just after the New Year’s holiday weekend and the kitchen was unable to find the right kind of parsley. On the one hand, we were disappointed; on the other hand, we admired their commitment to good parsley.

Red lentil soup is beautifully smooth, but could have been served hotter.

The one real letdown was the shawarma, which comes in chicken and beef options, but was dry, underseasoned and a little skimpy.

Desserts — some available for takeaway — include standard layer cakes, as well as sweet versions of manakeesh and Middle Eastern baklava, lighter and less honey-soaked than the Greek variety and filled with a delicate custard rather than walnuts. Date pastries had the delicate, perfumy taste of rosewater, but were a little dry.

Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press</p><p>Lazy Cake at Yafa Cafe is topped with crushed pistachios.</p>

Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press

Lazy Cake at Yafa Cafe is topped with crushed pistachios.

Yafa Café also offers argileh (a.k.a., hookah) for $13.99, along with good, robust coffee, locally roasted and custom-blended, and tea. Chai latte was lovely with cardamom, but was, sadly, brewed up with the tea bag in the cup.

The venue is simply furnished, but bright and light. In a nice, sociable touch, chess, checkers and backgammon boards are available for play.

The café offers table service, though you can fetch your own water from a metal dispenser in the centre of the room. Things got a bit slow during the lunch rush and there were a few snags — our table had to ask for a few small plates to facilitate sharing, for example — but the staff is well-informed and very welcoming.

Scout: Coffee + Tea (859 Portage Ave.) is a recent open in the West End. A hip downtown coffee place isn’t exactly a novelty, but Scout offers a new — and much-needed — twist with its family friendly ambience. On a recent cold winter day, the place was absolutely packed with cute kids (and their parents). Going beyond the obligatory highchairs, Scout has a whole play area where small children can happily run around while their mothers and fathers fuel up nearby.

And the fuel is anything but an afterthought, including as it does Black Pearl coffee, salads from Beet Happening, and baking from La Belle Baguette (from croissants to mini double-chocolate loaves to upscale pop-tarts).


Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

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