To be truthful, the first time I laid eyes on Asi Yoked, the owner of Park City’s new Reef’s Kitchen, I thought he was hired help. With his shaved head, teenage looks and colorful tats, the young restaurateur has probably been mistaken for a busboy or line cook by more folks than just I. Then again, I wasn’t too far off. The Israel-born Asi does handle most of the cooking and some of the bussing at Reef’s Kitchen. But he’s also the brains behind an immensely appealing addition to the Park City dining scene.
In a town where restaurateurs fall over themselves and spend millions to create buzz and “wow” factor, Reef’s'in business for barely four months'has done it the old-fashioned way. Asi’s wonderful cafe is the real deal: a business built on hard work, sweat, talent and family values. As far as I know, Asi doesn’t advertise, hasn’t hired a PR firm to sing his praises and didn’t employ architects and designers to create his restaurant. Probably because of that, Reef’s Kitchen already feels “lived in” after just those few months. It’s got a cozy feel and look that just couldn’t be created artificially.
In such a small space'Reef’s is located in a Kimball Junction shopping center, beneath Suede nightclub and next to a Subway sandwich shop'wine-colored walls and dark wood furniture could easily feel claustrophobic. But no, it’s a comfortable space that looks like it could have been around for 40 years, not four months. A lovely polished wood counter/bar separates the small “dining roomâ€'it’s all really one room'from what, in loftier locales, would be called an exhibition kitchen. The truth is that the kitchen is open for all to see because there’s nowhere else to put the large grill and six-burner stove that Asi commands. Dark tables and chairs are in close proximity, creating an intimate rather than crowded ambiance. A wooden bookshelf near the cash register displays an eclectic array of cookbooks, and assorted other provocative titles like Tattoos of the Floating World and Tying Nymphs.
On a busy Friday night, Asi’s father Yehuda gives my party a crash course on the Middle Eastern cuisine served at Reef’s. Holding court and handling the cash and credit cards at the end of the counter, Yehuda unveils the subtle differences between Israeli falafel or hummus and what you’d find in, say, Lebanon or Syria. Asi’s hummus'cooked (not canned) chickpeas ground with garlic, lemon juice, cumin and olive oil into a paste'is an absolute delight. And his falafel morsels taste lighter and more delicate than any I’ve ever had before. The appetizer sampler plate at Reef’s ($9.50) is an obvious way to get a party started: A large plate of falafel, hummus, warm pita bread, tahini and babaghanouj (grilled eggplant and sweet peppers) is perfect for sharing, along with an order of mixed olives ($1.25) and a sampling of sweet-and-sour red cabbage ($1.25) called kapusta, made from Asi’s grandmother’s recipe.
By now, it should be clear that Reef’s is a family affair. Asi’s Israeli wife Tali works both behind the counter and in the dining room, as does his sister Ronnie. Asi’s mom is responsible for the restaurant’s artwork, and Reef’s itself is the namesake of Tali and Asi’s young toddler son, Reef. The restaurant blossomed from a successful summer of selling Middle Eastern fare at the Park City Farmers Market, according to Tali. Pita sandwiches and hummus were such a hit at The Canyons last summer that Asi and his family decided to take the next logical step and open a restaurant. Good move. Loyal local customers and word-of-mouth marketing means that Reef’s Kitchen gets more popular each week.
Noticing my spring-cold sniffling at a recent lunch, Tali offered me a glass of hot cardamom tea while I waited for my food order to arrive. Slightly sweet and fragrant with cardamom, it tasted like nectar. But I also appreciated that Reef’s has a small selection of wine and beer on hand, in addition to sodas, pomegranate lemonade, espresso and Turkish coffee. A simple Rioja Blanco turns out to be a perfect foil for Asi’s filet of salmon ($17), cooked Moroccan-style in olive oil with an acidic, rich tomato reduction. What the menu doesn’t mention is that it also comes with an incendiary but sensational pesto-type paste made from almonds, coriander, cumin and parsley, which plays wonderfully with the Spanish vino. A trio of medium-rare grilled lamb chops ($17) stacked in a tripod of homemade curly fries'Yehuda proudly holds up a spud to show that they’re made from real potatoes'was completely satisfying, while conversation with Ronnie, Yehuda and Asi ranged from Mamoud’s Falafel’s in New York City, service in the Israeli army, fly fishing, Zionism, Israeli beer, snowboarding and the Israeli folk and pop music that plays continually at Reef’s. That’s the point: Reef’s is a place to find good and provocative conversation to accompany the equally delectable cuisine.
On another occasion'as I swung by Reef’s to pick up a takeout lunch of beef kebabs ($7.50) along with a side of the allspice-and-cinnamon-scented rice-and-lentil mixture called megadarra'I saw a couple of familiar-looking plumbers at the bar. They were eating Israeli schnitzel and marinated leg of lamb called Jerusalem shishlik, drinking cardamom tea, and chatting with Asi about river rafting and the pros/cons of marriage. It was a scene, like Reef’s Kitchen itself, that you just don’t come across every day.