TOP HAYAT AND TALES

A new Somali restaurant shines against its industrial-wasteland backdrop

It is a dark and blustery night. Steve and Sticks and I are careening down Vandeventer in the luxury sedan Sticks got in the divorce. We're looking to strap on the feedbag at a new Somali restaurant that, the scuttlebutt alleges, is wedged between some warehouses somewhere near Tower Grove. Or Boyle. Or Sarah. OK, I don't know exactly where. I don't know the name of the place, either. But we Posey-Smiths didn't get where we are today by ignoring scuttlebutt. Like fake fingernails, we press on.

"Just keep driving," I urge Sticks. "It's gotta be around here somewhere."

This neighborhood at 8 o'clock in the evening has an eerie, nuclear-holocaust look about it. A little farther down, Manchester and Chouteau and Vandeventer will tangle up at Midtown's epicenter of dissipation -- White Castle -- but here, all is quiet. Too quiet. No cars, no people, just leaves and old newspapers swirling in the gusts. A bleak, barren place for a restaurant. I sense that Steve and Sticks are losing faith in my scuttlebutt. They suspect that maybe we took a wrong turn.

Hassan Saleh, owner of Hayat's Restaurant, which shines against the backdrop of steel-gray industry like a swan in a swamp
Jennifer Silverberg
Hassan Saleh, owner of Hayat's Restaurant, which shines against the backdrop of steel-gray industry like a swan in a swamp

Location Info

Map

Saleem's

6501 Delmar Blvd.
University City, MO 63130-4502

Category: Restaurant > Bistro

Region: University City

Café Natasha's Kabob International

3200 S. Grand Blvd.
St. Louis, MO 63118

Category: Restaurant > Persian

Region: St. Louis - South Grand

Another block whooshes by. I'm about to file this particular restaurant rumor in the "bum steers" folder when, right across from Advance Tool & Die, a tidy brick edifice shimmers into view. With its colonial appurtenances, neat blue awning and bright floodlights, it shines against the backdrop of steel-gray industry like a swan in a swamp. A plastic banner announces Hayat's Restaurant: "Now Open."

"Hah -- there it is! Turn! Turn!" I am vindicated. I am also relieved. Steve has been telling a fairly offensive story about his antic nasal emissions, and I want out of the car. Besides, I'm starvin' like Marvin.

The wind blows us in from the abandoned street, and we find ourselves in a clean, well-lighted place. It smells faintly of cloves. Of cozy dimension and modestly appointed, the room has been freshly painted in white and lichen-green. Surreal airbrushed paintings of waves crashing on craggy shores hang on the wall. On each of the nine or 10 bare tables is a glass vase with a tiny flower. From behind a folding screen we hear steamy sizzles and quiet chatter in a language we don't understand. We are alone except for a large sullen man, sipping a glass of water, who ignores us completely. He stares as if in a trance at the large TV burbling in the corner. It's showing that commercial where the Grim Reaper skips around a meadow rescuing baby birds to the tune of "What a Day for a Daydream."

"My favorite commercial!" Sticks is aglow with approbation. Hayat's proprietor, an indomitably gracious chap named Hassan, emerges from behind the screen. Welcoming us like old school chums, he ushers us to a table adjacent to the sullen man. He produces one menu. Sometime later, a second menu appears. Then two glasses of water. Eventually a third water arrives, but the last menu never does. This conspicuously low-velocity approach, executed with the utmost cordiality, will characterize the rest of the meal. A second visit will confirm my suspicion: The pacing here is definitely of the deliberate school. Our host, it seems, is refreshingly devoid of Type A hangups.

None of us has ever been to Somalia, so we have no idea what exotic delights await us in the way of comestibles. The comma-shaped Somali Republic hugs the eastern borders of Kenya and Ethiopia on one side and juts out into the Indian Ocean on the other. A couple hundred miles of water separate it from Yemen. Weighing this geographical information, I cleverly speculate that even if we don't encounter a Somali version of injera (Ethiopian flatbread), we're bound to meet up with a lentil or two.

My speculations are inaccurate. Hayat's is about as chock-full of lentils as White Castle. In fact, they actually serve burgers. And other American staples: tuna salad, and omelettes, and bagels. But we aren't looking for bagels. Where are the exotic delights?

Sticks, ever the vigilant vegetarian, discovers one in a dish of foul mudammas, a stewlike preparation of fava beans, onion and garlic. Presented on a plate with a half-loaf of French bread, it is an unusual and delicious amalgam of flavors that my Western palate cannot fully fathom. An effluence of orange-tinted oil suggests that Hayat's kitchen does not skimp on the fat.

Sticks has also spotted bananas in the side-order section and asks for some. Eyeing her with mild surprise, our host informs us that Americans usually eschew the humble banana as a side dish, although it is a Somali favorite. He regrets that, in any event, he is fresh out of 'em.

The menu claims that Hayat's Somali selections are "similar to Middle Eastern with a special touch." But before we proceed, a small disclaimer: I do not possess the slightest expertise in the culinary disciplines of the Middle East. Beyond the combination platter No. 3 at Saleem's, Cafe Natasha's lamb chops and the incidental bite of falafel while visiting some distant metropolis, I'm pretty much a greenhorn. So you can take it with a grain of sumac when I propose that the aforementioned "special touch" is heat.

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