Location: 550 Denman St., Vancouver
Cuisine: Upscale Syrian and Lebanese
Prices: Appetizers, $10-$20; mains, $26-$29; tasting menu, $89 a person
Additional information: Open Wednesday to Sunday, 4:45 p.m. to 9:45 p.m.; reservations recommended; patio; takeout and pickup available.
Has a former ghost kitchen finally lifted the spell on a cursed Coal Harbour location? By the looks of Yasma – vibrant in Middle Eastern flavours, festive with live music and full almost every night since opening in March – it appears so.
Over the years, this bewitching jewel box of a restaurant has lured countless shipwrecks into its glimmering fold. Perched on the seawall at the foot of Denman Street, its waterfront views, expansive walls of glass, tranquil pond rippling off to one side and passing swarms of summertime tourists were too enchanting to resist.
When the rainy season descended, they all fell like dominoes: Crime Lab, Bravo Bistro, Sol Sun Belt Cookery, The Change, Verre. Some, such as Harbour550, came and went so quickly, you would hardly know they were there.
Undeterred, Yasma owner and general manager Sami Moustattat began filling the room with handcrafted latticework, brass lanterns, walnut tables and copper plates. He admits to having doubts before opening when everyone, even his landlord, told him he would be closed within a year.
But unlike the others, Yasma had two crucial advantages. First, as an upscale Syrian and Lebanese restaurant, it offered something new to Vancouver, with the potential to become a sought-out destination less susceptible to the vagaries of weather and visitors.
Second, from its initial incarnation as a popular delivery-service ghost kitchen that made its debut during the pandemic, it already had a loyal clientele besotted by its delectable food.
Yasma’s signature takeout dishes are all still available in the new restaurant, now fleshed out with exceedingly warm and attentive service, an abundance of large parties celebrating special occasions and, on weekends, an oud player gently strumming in the background.
There is the voluptuous muhammara, a smoky red-pepper spread complexly built with pomegranate molasses, meaty walnuts, onions and mahlab (a wild-cherry-pit powder); hummus that is smooth as silk from a laborious three-day process; and an incredibly fluffy tabouleh salad, plump with parsley that has been properly cleaned, rested, destemmed and minced with a precise cutting technique that prevents the moisture from leaking out.
But there is much more to enjoy, including an excellent drink selection, tasting menu, several new dishes and a wider selection of skewers, all delicately smoked over a charcoal-smouldering grill.
You won’t go wrong with the succulent chicken breast shish tawook, tenderized in yogurt. But the Aleppo kabab is a standout. The minced-lamb skewers are made from four parts of halal-certified lamb, broken down in-house from full animals. The neck, belly, shoulder and leg are coarsely ground, then mixed with fat, pistachios, red peppers and spicy Aleppo pepper, which is all molded around the skewers into long, flat patties that are gently charred. It’s subtly smoked, juicy, tender, chunky and absolutely delicious.
Another intriguing speciality is the kibbeh nayeh, made with raw lamb, similar to tartare. The clean, lean leg meat is finely ground and mixed with bulgur, Aleppo pepper, basil and mint. The paste is shaped into small balls, crowned with plumes of more fresh mint and meaty Chilean walnuts and served in a pool of herbed oil, juicy pomegranate seeds and slivered pistachios.
This kibbeh also comes in grilled and fried versions. The latter is coated in a cracked-wheat and lamb mixture that creates a lovely contrast between the crisp shell and crumbly centre.
The tasting menu, an extravagant feast of 14-odd dishes, is an excellent way to explore the menu. Ours included the chicken and Aleppo kebabs, kibbeh (raw and fried), lamb chops, pickles, hummus, tabbouleh, several dips, stuffed grape leaves and supremely addictive spiced potatoes that are double fried and coated in a bright and tangy garlic-lemon sauce.
It’s all vibrant, fresh and beautifully plated. But the tasting-menu portions are so generous, you might need a digestive shot of arak, an anise-flavoured spirit, halfway through.
An inspired drink list also includes very good Lebanese and French wines and cocktails that feature more arak, cedar, apricot fruit leather made into juice, saffron and yogurt.
Do try to leave room for dessert, which could include pillowy baklava, shipped weekly from the famous Pâtisserie Mahrouse in Montreal. Or the excellent qatayef, a fried pancake stuffed with walnuts or house-made clotted cream, drizzled with rose-water syrup and pistachio powder.
The only dishes that I didn’t absolutely adore were the sambousek, a fried dumpling stuffed with cheese (the pastry was a bit raw) and the fattoush salad (the cold cucumber and tomatoes needed to be brought up to room temperature).
But those are tiny quibbles for experiences that, with the music, the festive ambiance, the gracious service and delectable food, were otherwise magically transporting.
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