A savory synthesis

“Coming here is like coming home,” reads the T-shirt worn by servers at Yossi’s, a 48-seat restaurant featuring — apparently a first for metro Detroit — Israeli food.

On one level, the slogan means that Yossi and Lisette Benyamin want everyone to feel at home in their restaurant. On another, the slogan echoes their feelings when they emigrated from the Netherlands four years ago with their young sons, Dean and Jeremy.

In the Dutch city they left, Nijmegen, the Jewish population consisted of 50 families. For the boys, it meant growing up as outsiders. When the family moved to Oakland County, they found a welcoming community. Lisette took Dean to see his new school (Hillel, a private Jewish school in Farmington Hills); the then 6-year-old boy was astonished by the open display of Jewish symbols. “Mama, those letters are our letters,” he said, pointing to the Hebrew letters on the wall. It was a degree of comfort they hadn’t felt in Holland.

At Yossi’s, much of the menu is similar to what you might find in an Arab restaurant — kebabs, hummus, shawarma, tabbouleh, baba ghanoush, fattoush. In this category, almost everything we tried was made very well. The ground-beef kebab was robustly seasoned, juicy and delicious. Likewise, chicken shish kebab featured marinated chunks of chicken breast that were grilled and wonderfully moist on the inside. The fattoush was disappointing — the salad contained no parsley or scallions and way too many pickled carrots. And don’t bother choosing the “steamed vegetables” instead of fries or rice; they’re overcooked string beans.

How does Israeli food differ from Middle Eastern? Both Lisette and Yossi say the differences are both subtle and substantial. Dishes with the same names may be seasoned differently or prepared differently. Yossi, who was born in Israel, says Israeli food doesn’t use lemon juice as heavily, for example, as the same dishes made in Lebanon. Israeli cuisine also incorporates influences from Morocco, with its emphasis on spices and slow cooking. Couscous, another Moroccan staple, appears in two of the entrées. Israeli falafel contains only chick peas, not fava beans or a mix of the two. Yossi’s falafel is light and crisp.

And Israeli cuisine draws from Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews who brought their traditions as they immigrated to Israel. Schnitzel is one example; it’s made by pounding chicken breasts flat, dusting with flour, dipping in eggs and then breadcrumbs. Yossi says he gets the light, crisp taste by using crushed corn flakes instead of bread. He suggests eating it with shug, a Yemeni hot sauce made with cilantro and jalapeno peppers.

There are several items that don’t usually appear on Middle Eastern menus. Matbucha is a light appetizer made of freshly chopped tomatoes, peppers, onions and spices. The vegetables are cooked together, but briefly, not long enough to turn the mixture into spaghetti sauce. It’s delicious on the freshly baked, hot, thick pita bread.

Another terrific appetizer is eggplant cooked with peppers, onions and spices, and topped with a simple but intense tomato sauce.

Lunch at $6.50 is deal. You’ll have a choice of a pita wrap with soup or salad, or an entrée with a side of hummus, baba ghanoush, matbucha or eggplant.

Yossi’s is very veg-friendly. All of the appetizers are vegetarian, as are four entrées. Both the lentil and vegetable soups are made without meat stock.

For dessert, Lisette’s Dutch heritage makes an appearance. A family recipe for pancakes can be made with apples or bananas. The pancake is like a crêpe — thin and unleavened. The apples are peeled and cut thin, fried until they begin to caramelize, then covered with batter. It’s a fine combination of textures and flavors, with the pancakes fried crisp then dusted with powdered sugar and drizzled with maple syrup.

Other nice touches: Turkish coffee. Hot tea served with fresh mint. Most times, either Yossi or Lisette are at the restaurant. Customers are greeted warmly and thanked as they leave. One night we happened to come in at the tail end of a music performance (which may become a monthly event). But we ate a leisurely dinner and never felt rushed.

Yossi’s is open every day but Sunday. A word to the wise: The first two weeks of October include two important Jewish holidays; call to verify hours.

Elissa Karg dines for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].

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