Joan Kureczka | May 8, 200511:51 AM     9

Yaya has been a favorite chef of ours over the years through his series of restaurants. We had always wondered what had happened to him when he closed the downtown restaurant and vanished from the scene a few years ago. Recently he reappeared in a little place on Van Ness, and we decided to check out this incarnation last evening. I'm pleased to report that the cooking is as interesting and unusual as ever, in a very pleasant space. I hope he can survive the location, as the restaurant is a little oasis in the middle of residences and offices and not much else.

Yaya's cuisine is a combination of Iraqi traditional and Californian inventiveness. The menu is still in transition according to our waiter -- it doesn't quite reflect what is on their website, as Yaya adds and subtracts dishes -- but it includes some old favorites as well as new things.

One of his signature dishes from the past was one of the two starters we chose. These were tiny ravioli filled with cardomom-flavored dates, served in a tart yogurt and toasted walnut sauce and sprinkled with parmesan cheese. It sounds odd, but the intense flavors balance each other out and the overall sensation is delicious. I'd advise sharing though... this was a very large plate of some intense flavors that might serve better as a unique amuse-guele.

Our other starter was one of the most refreshing salads I can remember. Described as fattoosh, it did indeed have toasted pita bread as a component, but differed from other versions I've had. Instead of romaine and a few fresh herbs, along with cucumber and tomato, this salad was a mixture of cilantro, italian parsely, and mint with peeled cucumber wedges, cherry tomatos, and onion that had been marinated with lots of sumac. A light vinagrette set everything off well.

It was difficult choosing our entrees, both because everything sounded good and because the list differed somewhat from what we'd seen on the web. (I had come in thinking of ordering the seafood kabobs or ground chicken kabobs, and they were not among the offerings). Tradition won out and we ordered the perdaplow for one entree -- again an old favorite that was as good as we had remembered. This is a large, filo wrapped mound (clearly molded in a deep bowl) of chicken, onions, almonds, rice and sweet spices that resembles bastilla but is much moister than most versions of that dish. The pastry sits in a pool of raspberry cream sauce -- a startling but excellent combination with the chicken.

We went Iraqi traditional for the other entree -- masgouf (sp?) -- a spiced grilled fish, in this case trout. The fish was very good and possibly cooked over a wood fire as it was also very smoky. This was served with plain, but perfectly cooked mixed vegetables (peppers, carrots, pea pods, etc) and served with one of the most delicious pilafs I can recall. Rather than rice, this was a coarse bulgar with toasted almonds, toasted vermacelli, shitake mushrooms and saffron. Yum.

We were way too full to partake of dessert, but the middle-eastern based offerings were as creative as the rest of the menu. In fact, the portions of everything were so generous that we ended taking home half of both entrees.

The waiter said they are still working on the wine list, and so the offerings were limited but (based on what we had) well chosen and extremely affordable -- top price was about $32, and there were even a couple of bottles under $20. We enjoyed a very nice Oregon pinot gris that went well with the food. Asked about corkage, we were told a very very reasonable $7.

In fact, overall, this place is a bargain. The tab for the evening, with tax was only $75. We will definitely be back.

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