An encounter with Yats owner Joe Voskovich is like a brush with a small tornado. After a few minutes in his company, you feel like taking a breather, reassessing the universe as you know it, and downing a stiff drink or two before returning to the fray. There are energetic people, and then there are the Joes of this world, who constantly look as if they are on the verge of one exciting new discovery or another, or perhaps even a crisis of epic proportions, such is the pace of their existence.
Yats owner Joe Voskovich at their Mardi Gras celebration.
When Yats first opened a few months back, I was uncertain as to whether a restaurant of this kind could possibly stand a chance of survival, such was the simplicity of its concept and the unbelievably reasonable pricing. Now I am convinced that, with a character as ebullient as Voskovich at its helm, Yats could probably sell nothing but dry bread rolls and margarine at breakfast time and still generate a line halfway round the block.
There"s an enthusiasm for the subject of food here that is invigoratingly infectious: You get the impression that Voskovich wants to please as many people at once while keeping it legal. His energy is impossible to ignore, and it pervades every aspect of this frenetic little enterprise from the moment you walk in the door.
Joe Voskovich has been in the restaurant business for his entire working life. Born and raised in the New Orleans area, he has an abiding passion for his native cuisine and, until quite recently, operated a wholesale business, blending, grinding, packaging and selling spices to the restaurant trade. In the mid 1990s, he opened Yats in Lexington, Ky., a venue that was popular with students and touring bands alike. His latest venture, which occupies a small space just a couple of doors down from the Jazz Kitchen, seems tailor-made for that location. The interior of this cozy space is bright, lively and dominated by a massive psychedelic portrait of the owner himself.
At Yats there are no menus, and no waitstaff. Also, because of various zoning issues, there is no alcohol, but that"s a minor quibble. There"s plenty of refreshment to be found at any number of nearby bars, though, so Yats contents itself with offering a broad selection of soft drinks to suit all tastes.
On most days, there are between six and 10 dishes from which to choose, all of them costing $5 (or $6 if you decide to go for a half and half).
The food here is as vibrant and spicy as the dÈcor: authentic Cajun, heavy on the beans, rice and rich, savory sauces. There are gumbos, ÈtouffÈes, jambalayas, red beans and rice in all imaginable permutations. The spices are impeccably blended: Each dish takes on its unique personality, perhaps enlivened with some gumbo filÈ here, some okra there. Complex and assertive as the spicing is, it always leans towards the subtle, the elegant, even. Here you won"t find heat for heat"s sake, thank goodness. Like the finest of Indian cookery, Yats dishes up the spices in layers of unfolding complexity, never as a blast from the blowtorch. Although I find the levels of heat and spice to be first-rate, the restaurant offers a vast selection of hot sauces with which you can turn up the heat to suit your own taste. Yats also sells a wide range of dressings, marinades, sauces and rubs, all, again, very reasonably priced.
Nothing here is run-of-the-mill, despite the fact that no dish costs more than $5 and the portions are huge. A dish of crawfish ÈtouffÈe may contain a dozen crawfish tails, so you never feel like you"re getting shortchanged. This is the kind of food you find yourself wolfing down like there"s no tomorrow, then wondering what"s for seconds while you"re still only halfway through the first plate. When you"ve finally inhaled your heaping portion of jambalaya, try to make some room for the excellent desserts, which include a decadently rich peanut butter cream pie - a perfect end to the perfect meal on the fly.
Yats is a one-of-a-kind place, at least for now. Although very busy on the weekends, it"s always worth stopping by to see if there"s a free table: Your tummy certainly won"t regret it, and your wallet will hardly notice a thing.
5363 N. College Ave.
Food : 3 1/2 stars
Atmosphere : 3 stars
Service : 3 stars
A few weeks ago, I made a solemn little promise to myself that I wasn"t going to visit any new Indian restaurants for a while, a promise that was well on its way to being kept until a friend from that country suggested that I really needed to check out this excellent new establishment north of Castleton. Although typically unassuming from the outside, and pretty Spartan within, Maharaja offers a broad and fascinating menu, with many items, especially from southern India, that I have not seen in this market before.
If you"re in a hurry and on a budget, there"s no better way to get a feel for the food here than by trying the lunch buffet for $6.95. Unlike most buffets, this one offers some truly interesting dishes and a wide selection of condiments, such as onion chutney, hot mango pickles and tamarind chutney.
On a recent visit, my friend and I enjoyed an eclectic selection of dishes, including Idli, which is a ramekin-sized cake made from ground and steamed rice. This is served with sambhar, a vinegary lentil soup with bits of chopped vegetable. The rice cake is used like a sponge to soak up the soup, and is quite delicious. Also served was an alu chole, essentially curried chick peas and potatoes, as well as an outstanding chicken tikka masala. The latter consists of tandoor-grilled chicken served in a rich tomato and cream sauce. A fine dal makhni (lentils with garlic, tomatoes, ginger and spices) and an excellent chicken curry, rich and redolent of freshly-ground spices, rounded out the main courses admirably. Everything was fresh and bright, with well-defined flavors and expert spicing. This brief introduction to Maharaja"s food was ample evidence that the place needs to be on my future must-dine list. The southern dishes alone, which appear to involve a lot of rice pancakes and chutneys, would appear to be worth the drive on their own.
Prices at Maharaja are very reasonable, with appetizers (they do a very decent pakora) in the $3 to $5 range, and entrees between $9 and $13 on average. The seven different naan breads vary from $1.75 for the entry-level version to $3.95 for the elaborately-stuffed, meal-in-its-own-right Kashmiri rendition. Chutnies and smaller side dishes are $1 to $3 or so. Maharaja offers a short beer and wine list which features most of the usual suspects. I prefer to drink the excellent mango lassi, which does much to tame the fire.