IN THE KITCHEN Chef Carlo Berdahn, 41, and his wife Danielle, 37, are co-owners of Gloucester’s new harborfront dining spot, Yella on the Water. Their restaurant-with-a-view serves Lebanese cuisine, but not exactly what you’ll find anywhere else. Carlo, born and raised in Lebanon, is always tasting his food and making adjustments as he cooks. “I’ll ask him how he made something, and he’ll say he can’t remember,” said Danielle. “Sometimes she follows me with a pen and paper when I cook,” said Carlo.
Ten years ago this month, the couple opened Yella Grille in Andover. They followed with Yella on the Water last June. (“Yella” is Arabic for “Let’s go!”) Danielle, who spent summers in Gloucester as a girl, said the cuisine is recognizably Middle Eastern but with a strong Gloucester influence. “We serve food you wouldn’t get in Lebanon, like cod and haddock, but we rub it with spices that we get directly from Lebanon.” Other than spices, ingredients are locally sourced whenever possible, she said, including the seafood. “It’s ocean-to-table, you could say.”
THE LOCALE For dinner recently, our party of three arrived on a cold Friday evening with a 6:30 p.m. reservation. A windowside spot, a corner table with a marblelike top, was waiting for us. The placed filled up quickly after we sat down. Unfortunately, with Daylight Savings Time over, the only way to enjoy Yella’s spectacular view of Gloucester Harbor from Pavilion Beach is to come for lunch (which we had done twice before). In warmer weather, there can be a crowd waiting for tables on the deck out front.
Yella’s interior is chic and uncluttered with a few exotic touches here and there. Hanging on the wall behind us during dinner was an antique wooden door — from Morocco via the Brimfield Flea Market, we learned later. As soon as we sat down, a charming young server arrived brandishing a Lebanese glass water jug and filled our glasses with a flourish. She seemed to enjoy the maneuver as much as we did. On each of our visits to Yella, in fact, we noticed that the people working there appeared delighted to be there and delighted to be hosting us.
“Usually people working at restaurants want to go home as soon as a place closes for the night,” Danielle said on the phone later. “Here they’ll say, ‘Can we stay and hang out?’ Last summer at closing, sometimes we’d all run across the street and go swimming.”
ON THE MENU Yella on the Water seems to have become instantly popular, and we could see why. The food is reliably tasty, and portions are generous. A lunchtime staple, the chicken kabob plate ($15.50), featured skewers of delicious seared marinated chicken with grilled tomato and onion, hand-cut fries, and a garlic dip. A bowl of Moroccan shakshouka ($18) was a hearty Middle Eastern stew with roasted eggplant and cauliflower, quinoa, chickpeas, peppers, cilantro, and feta in a spicy, tomatoey sauce. On top of the whole tangy concoction, for good measure, was a fried egg. Have this for lunch, and you won’t need dinner.
Rather than munching on the usual smooth hummus dip ($8), we tried hummus awarma ($9.50), which was spiced up with caramelized onion, toasted pine nuts, crumbled sauteed Angus beef, and a surprising dash of cinnamon. Oh yes, we’ll have that again.
Another winner was an unusual dish of citrusy basil-mint crab cakes ($14), which came with pickled fennel, salad greens garnished with fresh orange sections, and a Greek yogurt aioli. Lebanese street food this isn’t.
A particular favorite was one of the night’s specials, a beef and vegetable ragout ($18). This was a fragrant mix of tender, peppery beef strips and sauteed vegetables on a pile of curly egg noodles. It was tasty and abundant: the take-home portion yielded a later meal for two.
By saving parts of our meals for later, we just had room for dessert: a single portion of vanilla crème-fraiche panna cotta ($9.50). Cool on the tongue and not overly sweet, it was topped with a stripe of salty ground pistachios and blueberries, and the plate was drizzled with a sweet fruit sauce. With three of us sharing, it lasted barely a minute. As for the Berdahns’ new restaurant, we expect it has plenty of staying power.
Yella on the Water, 25 Western Ave., Gloucester, 978-491-5334, yellagrille.com.