Yasmine review: A kebab house and so much more inside Union Market


You might have a favorite restaurant, one that you visit on the regular, where the server knows your name and has memorized your favorite dishes, maybe even the rank in which you order them. But no matter how tight you are with your neighborhood haunt, you will never have the kind of relationship that the Lebanese have with Barbar in Beirut.

For more than 4o years, Barbar never closed, serving locals 24/7 no matter the conditions outside. It might be the rainy season. It might be civil war. The place even welcomed the hungry after a rocket-propelled grenade hit its entrance. The pandemic ruined Barbar’s perfect record, of course, forcing the bakery and its many spinoffs to close their doors, but the operators still found ways to pack manakish, falafel, kebabs and other beloved street food onto scooters to nourish loyal customers. The symbiotic relationship is unmatched: Barbar is there for the community, and the community is there for Barbar.

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“Late night, you’ll see a bunch of kids leaving bars and clubs and stuff, going straight there. You know, it’s mainly a sidewalk, but it’s just covered in people eating food,” said Said Haddad, who spent time in Beirut, circa 2000, attending Lebanese American University when he wasn’t snacking on mezze at Barbar.

Haddad is now the general manager at Yasmine, a Lebanese-style kebab shop in Union Market, which he founded with chefs Chris Morgan and Gerald Addison and business partner Ben Farahani. The owners have spent considerable time researching kebab houses — storefronts, incidentally, that often embrace a wide world of Levantine street foods, not just skewers. But it’s Haddad, 45, whose soul has been shaped by these shops. His memories are thick with affection, as he recalls eating snacks on the hood of his car outside a shop, or on a card table set up by the side of the road. That he and his partners in Yasmine want to re-create this kind of relaxed, ritualistic, late-night vibe almost goes without saying.

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Their task at building community is complicated by their location, the former Rappahannock Oyster Bar inside Union Market, a food hall with early closing hours and a demonstrated willingness to give loyal vendors the boot. But if you needed a venue with reliable foot traffic to test your concept, you could do a lot worse than Union Market. Yasmine has made its bargain, Faustian or otherwise, but a part of me wishes this intimate and inviting kebab house were located in a more freewheeling spot, where it could really cut loose. (I’m told other locations are on the boards, so fingers crossed on that.)

There is much to like here, and it begins with the dips and spreads, a tidy menu of baba ghanouj, muhammara, labneh, balila and hummus, each one basking in its element: the grilled undercurrents of eggplant in the surprisingly silky baba ghanouj; the wild thyme herbaceousness of the tangy labneh; the pomegranate-molasses sheen of the muhammara, so ripe and earthy. But the communal spread that hooks me every time is not a spread at all. It’s a simple dish of stewed chickpeas, its muted nuttiness agitated with garlic and cumin. Scooped into torn pieces of warmed pita, the flatbread sourced from Old Time Bakery in Alexandria, the balila is almost a meal in itself, especially when paired with a tall glass of jallab, the syrupy date-and-grape drink popular in the Middle East.

Morgan and Addison have developed the recipes for Yasmine, but they took direction from Haddad (whom they befriended at Maydan back in its heady early days) as well as the general manager’s mother and father, with whom the chefs consulted via Zoom. Natives of Lebanon and the West Bank, respectively, George and Inshirah Haddad spent most of their working lives in Kuwait before retiring to Cincinnati, where some of Inshirah’s family settled. The parents can be tough critics on the food of their homeland.

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“There’s a lot of hard lines in the sand, where you’ll talk to them and they’ll say, ‘Oh, yeah, absolutely there has to be lemon juice on it,’” said Morgan, whose partnership with Addison has created memorable plates at Bammy’s and Little Chicken. “And those are things that we want to know.”

This collaboration — between generations, between cultures, between Washington-area chefs and a retired couple whose palates are hardwired to the subtleties of Levantine cooking — has led to something different on the plate. Something meticulously crafted, but still rooted in the homestyle cooking of the old country. Even the name, Yasmine, is a nod to Haddad’s paternal grandmother, who still lives in a small village in the mountains above Tripoli.

The lamb kebab, wrapped in pita, is a sandwich that doesn’t quit. It begins with lamb mixed with baharat, a Lebanese seven-spice blend that can lean sweet if not counterbalanced with enough black pepper. The meat is quickly surrounded on all sides by harissa, hummus, labneh, sumac onions and more. You’d think the lamb wouldn’t stand a chance against this invasion of its space, but it does, declaring its independence with complete authority. The shish taouk, stuffed with labneh-marinated chicken thighs and fries, is a sandwich that calls to clubgoers, just the thing to counteract a night of heavy drinking. But Morgan and Addison clearly want you to remember this sandwich in the morning, which you will due to its generous application of garlic-dense toum.

You must love the cunning, heavy-metal cry of garlic to appreciate Yasmine. The team’s thick, almost spreadable toum cranks up the volume on the stinking rose, allowing its pungency and pigheaded perfume to accessorize a number of dishes. You’ll find it not just tucked into the shish taouk, but served as a condiment for the fries that are first tossed in chili oil, making for a side dish that doubles down on heat. I love the toum so much, I found myself ordering a small container to spread on my crackly falafel, which already comes packed with garlic, and to apply to the toshka, a quesadilla-like bite in which mozzarella and Z&Z za’atar are pressed between pita bread. I may have even dunked the components of my salata into the toum when the staff wasn’t looking.

I’ve ordered Yasmine to go numerous times, and the dishes generally eat well away from the shop — until that moment when the pita turns wooden. The window is unfortunately small. Which is all the more reason to enjoy Yasmine on-site, surrounded by fellow travelers. One weeknight, a friend and I were sitting side by side at the bar, a mess of dishes and drinks laid before us. As the evening wound down, we found ourselves deep in conversation with bartender and server Hwan Choi. We were trading restaurant recommendations, vegan and otherwise. As we chatted, I could almost imagine this conversation taking place on the crowded sidewalks of Beirut, where time loses all meaning outside of a 24/7 kebab house.

But then I noticed the crews at the other stalls in Union Market were cleaning up. It was almost 9 o’clock and time to call it a night.

1509 Fifth St. NE, inside Union Market; 202-853-0205; yasmine.us.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Nearest Metro: NoMa-Gallaudet U New York Ave., with a short walk to the restaurant.

Prices: $1 to $52 for all items on the menu, excluding bottles of wine.

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