The Chaldean Challenge
by Bix Engels
Late summer had me ping-ponging between the Grange Kitchen and Yoshi's, three blocks east on Liberty, and the contrast was stark. Though Yoshi's opened a month earlier, during most of my late lunch-hour visits there were just a handful of diners in the new double dining room. Yet it's a nice space--clean and comfortable, with expansive windows overlooking the streetscape and outdoor tables for pleasant weather. And the menu has interesting highlights.
Yoshi's biggest challenge may be that few Ann Arborites are attuned to Chaldean food. As always, if you want to know about a particular cuisine, start by looking at its geographical origins. In this case, the Chaldean homeland is between the Mediterranean and India, and the junction of Middle Eastern and Asian provides the styles and flavors that inform the fare at Yoshi's. Think Lebanese with a touch of Indian.
Yoshi's menu contains nothing unusual to anyone who has been to a Middle Eastern restaurant--the kebabs, shawarma, falafel, and hummus are all here. Yet Yoshi's does things just a little differently and nearly all from scratch. Its strongest suit is the vegetarian dishes, and its very best dish is the potato curry soup. Tending more toward the Indian in spicing, it is deeply flavored with cumin and chilies. The tabbouli is also very good, with a preponderance of fresh chopped parsley and dressed with lemon juice and olive oil. The fattoush salad, romaine tossed with pita chips and dressing, is a standard effort--crisp and fresh but nothing out of the ordinary. Similarly, the falafel is roughly the same as you'd find in most eateries of this genre, but my lunch companion wisely ordered her falafel sandwich with spicy ambar sauce--made with pickled mango, it's like a liquid hot chutney. On platters, you have the option of grilled vegetables or rice. Go for the veggies--onions, squash, and peppers; quickly seared, marked with authentic grill striping, and very flavorful, they're a huge and healthy step up from rice
or fries. Food is carefully and appealingly plated; a few weeks in, Yoshi's switched from disposable to reusable dishware.
Best among the chicken dishes is the kebab platter, nice lean pieces of breast meat with a sort of lemony flavor; worst is chicken kufta kebab, minced chicken on a stick, grilled and dry. (I love that Yoshi's offers half or full portions on salads and platters; the halves were plentiful enough for me.) Yoshi's beef shawarma has deeper flavor from spit-roasting, but it, too, was less than succulent. Still, I liked it better than the chicken shawarma, which is basically chicken breast broiled and thinly sliced--not bad, but not the big-flavor footprint I'd hoped for. If you have your heart set on meat, its shortcomings could be offset with either the ambar sauce or the garlic sauce. Be prepared for the latter, which packs a heftier allium kick than any Middle Eastern garlic sauce in my memory.
The large staff, often outnumbering patrons, seemed occasionally daunted by the challenges of a new restaurant and fiddled endlessly with things like the register system. Service was extremely polite and genuinely friendly, though somewhat slow and occasionally rough--not bringing enough silverware to the table, for example (when we pointed it out, they brought us free baklava by way of apology). Service improved with each visit, thanks in large part to owner and namesake, Yasir "Yoshi" Kaskorkis, who conscientiously looks in on all the guests and makes great efforts to take care of people and respond to their comments.
At one point in August, a staffer looked around the empty dining room and mentioned to my colleague that he hoped the restaurant could hang on until the students got back to town. It has, and I hope they'll see busier days ahead. Ann Arbor is surprisingly deficient in top-notch and unusual Middle Eastern dining opportunities. Yoshi's is not quite there yet, but with dishes like the potato soup and grilled vegetables, it shows definite promise.
241 E. Liberty
Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.-6 p.m.
Appetizers and sides $4.99-$8.99, soups and salads $2.95-$7.99, sandwich wraps $4.99, entrees $8.99-$13.99, raw juice bar $4.99
Disabled access to building from parking lot in rear (same entrance as Afternoon Delight); bathrooms accessible.
[Originally published in October, 2009.]
On October 20, 2009, GENO WARDELLI wrote:
Good, but no competition for Jerusalem Gardens.