Chef Yahia Kamal’s face would be familiar to anyone who has ever bought rectangular plastic tubs of his hummus, baba ghanoush, shatta, falafel, mazza, labneh and other Mediterranean foods, available in the refrigerated deli section of local supermarkets such as Whole Foods and Hen House.
Wearing a checked shirt and a patterned tie, a thickly mustachioed Kamal beams at customers from the folksy label on his products. His product line, sold under Yummy’s Choice, has become an exotic staple I grab for almost weekly.
Yet despite his substantial supermarket success, Kamal says he missed seeing people eat his food, as he did when he owned Yummy’s Market on 39th Street. He let that location go in 2005 when he ramped up his wholesale production. In December he opened Marble Top Café, a quaint and comfortable space nestled in a former Quiznos sandwich shop.
If appearances are any indication, the slimmer, fitter Kamal is enjoying his new ventures immensely.
His daily regimen: Eat a mostly hummus-and-falafel diet, get a daily workout in the kitchen and drink plenty of strong coffee.
Not coincidentally, Kamal’s new space offers a warm and appealing Old-World decor of dark woods and tan walls, and from 7 to 11 a.m. Kamal serves Turkish coffee, hot chocolate and teas. The space features a self-serve ordering counter with a case displaying Yummy’s Choice products to go. Another display offers his spice blends.
But the real draw is a simple eat-in or take-out menu that features $9.99 vegetarian, gyro and chicken gyro combination plates.
The menu also includes a few other sandwiches, salads and side orders. But you’ll feel like you’re eating like a king if you order the top-selling vegetarian platter. On it are lavish pools of silky hummus (a puree of chickpeas) and chunkier and tangier baba ghanoush (puree of eggplant) with a mound of tabouli (cracked wheat salad with tomato and cucumber), falafel (meatball-size chickpea fritters) and dolmas (rice-stuffed grape leaves).
On my first visit, my eyes prove to be much bigger than my stomach. After ordering enough food for five or six, I have made Kamal suspicious, or at least curious. His head pops through the kitchen door to survey the dining room scene, most likely expecting an army, not just three of us huddled in the corner.
“My friends! How are you?” he cries out.
As our meal winds down, Kamal asks if he can bring us some hot tea. The weather is blustery, so we agree. Kamal returns with a pot of hot water, a tangle of fresh mint leaves steeping inside. It seems only proper to ask him to join us, and he accepts since there is a lull in the evening’s orders.
I tell him I eat his hummus straight from the container, by the naked spoonful. Yes, it is that good.
So why did he want to get back into the daily grind of owning a cafe?
“The best hummus isreally
fresh,” he says. “The minute you put it in a package, it loses something.” Besides, he adds, people want to see the guy who makes their food.
A few weeks later I return to Marble Top Café for lunch. Most of the tables are occupied. My friend orders the vegetarian platter, one that offers the widest variety of items on a single plate. I order the gyro platter — five pre-cut, pressed slices of a beef and lamb mixture, a warm round of pita, tomato, onion and lettuce and tzatziki sauce with a side of saffron rice flecked with raisins and nuts, plus a separate side salad garnished with a dolma.
Again, Kamal is working the room, ferrying food to the tables and greeting everyone with his trademark, “How are you, my friend?”
As he sees us push our lunch plates away, Kamal asks if we would like some tea. I am already sipping on a pomegranate-cherry lemonade. The lemonade flavors change daily. My daughter was immediately won over by the passion fruit version, and I’m eagerly awaiting the return of one of Kamal’s friends, the one who is bringing saffron from Kashmir.
Like so many of his Yummy’s Market fans, I am crazy for Kamal’s saffron lemonade, an elixir I first tasted several years ago on a blistering summer afternoon while on a farm tour in Lexington, Mo.
“I get lots of requests for the saffron lemonade,” he says later when I reach him by phone. “Almost every day I make a different flavor with whatever I have on hand. It’s not from concentrate.”
Don’t let the bubbler machines fool you. The lemonade contains fresh-squeezed lemon juice, sometimes with a hint of rosewater or orange blossom. I ask him if he has ever considered bottling the stuff.
“I’ve put it in jars before, but it’s not the same,” he says. “Maybe someday ”
Sensing an opportunity, I ask if he would ever consider sharing the recipe with readers of The Star’s Food section. When he graciously agrees, I thank him profusely, vowing to call again as soon as the weather warms up.
“Yes, you take care, my friend!”