Restaurateur Frank Scibelli takes diners on a Middle Eastern culinary journey at the new Yafo Kitchen.
When Frank Scibelli has a food craving, the whole city benefits. His most recent hankering for Mediterranean flavors and bold Middle-Eastern spices coalesced into Yafo Kitchen, his newest concept, and first foray into fast-casual dining, located in SouthPark’s Morrison Shopping Center. The long-time restaurateur behind Mama Ricotta’s, Cantina 1511(sold in 2012), Bad Daddy’s Burger Bar (sold in 2015), Pacos Tacos & Tequila, and Midwood Smokehouse bases his concepts off one simple question: What do I want to eat?
Scibelli was first introduced to Middle-Eastern flavors while in college at Wake Forest University. “My college roommate was Iranian,” he says. “His mother would visit and make Persian food, and my mom would make Italian food.” The comforting warmth of bold spices, and intensely flavored meats stuck with him.
Yafo Kitchen is named after Jaffa (“Yafo” in Hebrew), one of the oldest and most historic parts of southern Tel Aviv, Israel, a port city and culinary epicenter known for its blend of Jewish and Arab cultures.
Entering Yafo Kitchen, the feeling is bright and open. Happy swaths of lime green line the banquettes, and colorful panels in blues, pinks, and greens hang overhead. Wood accents and reclaimed cedar tables ground the space, keeping its look modern and casually sophisticated. Photos of Israeli markets line the walls, a creative contribution from Israeli-born Executive Chef Shai Fargian, who took the photos himself.
The menu, developed by famed Food Network chef Einat Admony, is executed and refined by Fargian daily, and continues to evolve with his talents. Fargian began cooking after a decorated military career, and discovered his passion while cooking through an economics degree. He spent years cooking in Tel Aviv with stints in New York. His roots drive the authenticity of the menu.
At Yafo, spices direct from Israel, house pickles, and preserved lemons line the shelves, and are used for the generous list of mezze (small snacks or side dishes) on the rotating menu including quinoa salad with preserved lemon, fried shallots, and cranberries. But shawarma spiced chicken and rotisserie lamb are the stars at Yafo, gracing everything from the signature grain and hummus bowls to the wraps made with laffah, chewy pita made in front of you. The hummus is exceptionally good, made with organic chickpeas, and blended to expert smoothness. Try the hummus bowl with lamb—a heaping portion of hummus, topped with lamb that has been seared on the rotisserie, braised in tomatoes with Moroccan spices, and then tossed in a sugo (sauce) made with mirepoix that enjoyed the benefit of cooking beneath the rotisserie. That deeply comforting preparation is Fargian’s doing. The bowl is topped with pickles, and guests can choose from other toppings like sumac spiced onions, herbed tahini, and kalamata olives. Yafo also serves freshly squeezed juices based on the season. The watermelon juice and fresh lemonade are a refreshing counterpoint to a savory meal.
Above all, Yafo is a place that people who are familiar, and not so familiar, with Middle-Eastern cuisine can taste and try new things. For Scibelli, this is the answer to his latest food craving. For Fargian, this is the taste of home.
Photography by Michael C. Hernandez.