SAN FRANCISCO — YAHYA SALIH'S mom would be proud of his version of her home cooking. San Franciscans are so taken with it that he opened his second restaurant this past summer, three years after the first.
The popular West Coast chef left his home near Nineveh, Iraq, 16 years ago. He spoke only Arabic, but was destined to serve hungry San Franciscans subtly seasoned Mesopotamian fare - turned magical with touches of light California sauces and brilliantly colored fresh vegetables.
Purely ethnic, it is not. The roots of his food are Middle Eastern, flowing from the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers. But the eye appeal, the sauces, the unconventional blends of seasoning, and the variety are clearly a la California.
Mr. Salih grew up in Mosul, near Nineveh, the capital of ancient Assyria, and brought with him detailed memories of how his mother prepared simple, wholesome food for the family. "She would cook it in one pot, and all of the family would sit around it at mealtime to share food and talk of the day's doings," Salih recalls.
Yes, mom would be proud of her son - who was never able to return to Iraq to see her again before she passed on. But she might also be surprised at how her son is transforming Nineveh's Middle Eastern kitchen into dishes that delight even fussy Bay Area diners.
Most people around here call Salih "Yahya perhaps because he has named both of his places "YaYa Cuisine." But the many personal touches he offers - and the natural, bright warmth and hospitality he exudes to patrons - invite a first-name basis.
Yahya, as he asked me to call him, learned his personal touches and cooking skills through a long apprenticeship. He started by washing dishes at an Indian restaurant when he arrived in the city. When he had learned enough English, he attended college on the side. He finally earned a degree in industrial design from San Francisco State University.
But the food business, where he earned the money for his education, kept calling him. At one point, Yahya cooked in a restaurant of the famous chef Jeremiah Tower, who admired the man from Nineveh so much that he recommended Yahya start his own place. Yahya serves lunch and dinner at the first YaYa's, and dinner only at the second. The prices are moderate. He does all of the buying for both restaurants, starting at about 7 a.m.
"I buy in small quantities so the food is always very fresh," he says. His workday ends around 11 p.m. "To me," he says, "America means working hard and enjoying it." How about a family? He's still "too busy," he shrugs.
Yahya's first place, located downtown in the redeveloping and trendy South of Market area, is a bit more traditional than the second. But with him, food is never really traditional. Critics have written that he has the imagination to change it - and successfully - on a regular basis. He surprises one by doing things like adding dark rings of date syrup to the tahini, in which swims an appetizer called bourak - spiced ground beef wrapped in filo dough.
In his first restaurant, the menu includes "California kebabs freshly ground pork (or beef, lamb, or chicken) grilled on a skewer over mesquite charcoal on a grill he designed himself. Each kebab comes topped with its own sauce: respectively, lime and raisin, honey, curry, garlic. On the side he adds bulgur wheat (a choice that neatly links the Middle East with grain-conscious West Coasties) with yellow raisins and sliced almonds mixed in, and vegetables in singing colors around the edges.
There is seafood as well - including shrimp with caramelized shallots and a sauce made from sun-dried limes, a spice dating back thousands of years in Iraq. Yahya brought a dried lime to the table and crushed it with his thumb to release a subtly aromatic scent.
HE newer restaurant expands greatly on a small section of the first restaurant's menu called "From The Land of Mesopotamia." In fact, he adds that phrase to restaurant No. 2, as if it were the subtitle of a book. The dishes here, with unexpected combinations of flavors and ingredients, include dolma, vegetarian dolma, muklooba (see recipe), biriani, perdaplow. Not to worry: They are all explained on the menu.
Even while innovating, Chef Yahya, who does a lot of the cooking himself, holds to the foods from Nineveh. Mesopotamian food, he maintains, has distinct touches that make it different from other Middle Eastern food. His dolma, for example, is not a stuffed grape leaf but stuffed Swiss chard, a Ninevehesque distinction. But wait - the dolma also comes as stuffed zucchini, and in an onion, too!
"And in Nineveh, I never heard of falafel," he laughs. Both of Yahya's places offer mezgoof - a traditional Iraqi grilled whole fish. "But we have things in Nineveh you never see in Baghdad," he adds.
Yahya also offered me a dish he hasn't put on the menu yet: a Nineveh-style kibbe (usually ground lamb with wheat and pine nuts) with a batter of bulgur wheat and organic cracked wheat. Yahya forms them round and flat, like a pizza, but filled slightly with either lamb and a delicately spiced tomato sauce, or chicken and a curried apricot sauce. They are steamed and served very hot.
The new restaurant is on 9th Avenue, right next to Golden Gate Park in an area of the city called Inner Sunset, not too far from the Pacific. It is full of many races, a family neighborhood - friendly, quite safe, and full of restaurants.
Yahya wants his new place to be a neighborhood restaurant, even though it has been as widely celebrated by food writers as his first.
But Inner Sunset will have to settle for a lot of atmosphere in this neighborhood place - Yahya hired an artist to see to that. As hungry patrons walk in, they enter the small dining area through the artist's tiled version of Babylon's Gate of Ishtar, the original of which German archaeologists hauled away from Iraq in pieces to Berlin long, long ago.
On the wall in the dining area is a tasteful but large and powerful mural of Hammurabi's ancient walled Babylon. As the truly modern food comes to the table, one realizes again that history is alive in San Francisco, modified a bit every day, brought up to date by the many peoples who have come to this bright city.