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A Mediterranean Touch

Yaffa’s modified menu

Feb. 6, 2008
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When chef/owner John Chitko opened Yaffa two years ago, he redefined the experience of Mediterranean dining in Milwaukee. The overall concept wasn’t new, but Yaffa made it different by focusing on Middle Eastern and Moroccan dishes, with a few touches from Europe.

The restaurant, which occupies a choice spot on the RiverWalk, is close to the Bradley Center and several Downtown theaters. The interior remains as welcoming as ever. I prefer the front dining room, where roomy chairs, the warm glow of the fireplace and Moroccan light fixtures create a soothing ambiance.

But while the lounge remains the same, the menu has seen major changes. The first came when lunches were dropped. This meant the disappearance of an exceptional shawarma sandwich prepared with arugula.

The Yaffa veggie platter is also gone; the hummus, with its inspired touch of preserved lemon, is sorely missed. Vegetarians are now limited to one entree, and the four Moroccan tagines have also been reduced to one. New items have been introduced in their place, including seared duck breast, scallops and even Kobe beef. As such, prices are noticeably higher.

A basket of pita bread begins the meal. Accompaniments may include a fine hummus, some herbed olive oil and a small dish of assorted olives. The pita comes with a dusting of zaatar, a Lebanese spice blend, but the bread is not of the same quality as before.

Appetizers such as harissa shrimp and a Spanish cheese plate call out to be sampled, but it is creative items like the bacon-wrapped stuffed dates ($10) that make Yaffa so interesting. A half-dozen medjool dates are stuffed with cabrales, a Spanish cheese with pungent flavor. They are wrapped in bacon and then skewered with bamboo. The bacon is quickly cooked, just enough to melt the cheese. A roasted beet salad ($7) is a simpler affair, featuring diced and roasted beets with a few field greens and pistachios in a gentle balsamic thyme vinaigrette. A sprinkling of crumbled goat cheese provides a Mediterranean touch.

Entrees include a rack of lamb, Moroccan chicken, bouillabaisse and even moussaka. Then there is the duck breast ($24), cooked to order (on the rare side, please) and served in slices with just a thin layer of skin and fat—a succulent pleasure. It’s accompanied by polenta cake topped with sauteed Swiss chard and a smaller quantity of fennel.

There’s also a sherry duck demi sauce, which is rich and should be used sparingly. The Mediterranean touch comes from the halved figs that sweeten the demi sauce. The sole vegetarian entree is a novel one: Mediterranean spiced tofu ($19). A slice of tofu is served over zaalouk, a Moroccan blend of spiced eggplant, bell peppers and tomato. Added to this blend are whole fried okra and fingerling potatoes that are slowly cooked to perfect tenderness and topped with cilantro pesto, which brings the crunchy texture of pine nuts. The tofu remains calmly in the background, a platform for this interplay of flavors. The attractive presentation helps to justify the price. The wine list meanders though the northern side of the Mediterranean with side trips to Australia, California and Chile. All but a few of the most expensive bottles are also served by the glass.

While much of the original menu is missed, Yaffa remains one of Milwaukee’s best restaurants. John Chitko is on a par with the very best chefs in this city, and he knows the foods of the Mediterranean very well. So sit back, relax and enjoy a contemporary meal that does not slavishly follow national trends.

106 W. Wells St. (414) 223-0101 $$$-$$$$ Credit Cards: All major Smoking: At bar Handicap Access: Yes


Photos by Jessica Kaminski


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