BY BROGAN SCOTCH
Jo Marie Yamin-Ali and Akram Ali infuse their unique histories and family upbringings into the dishes they serve in downtown Scranton.
The husband-and-wife duo behind the Garden, where they serve authentic Middle Eastern cuisine and hospitality at 116 N. Washington Ave., bring years of experience to their craft. Yamin-Ali owned a Lebanese pastry shop on Spruce Street before going into the street cart and food truck business, serving late-night bar hoppers in downtown Scranton for eight years. Her husband, meanwhile, spent 15 years in Chicago as a Middle Eastern chef and specialty butcher. After marrying, they opened the Garden Cafe in West Pittston in 2016 before moving to their current location in the Electric City last March.
“Food is a big part of our culture and our family,” said Nancy Yamin, manager of the Garden and Yamin-Ali’s sister.
The influence of family history on the eatery’s food is apparent particularly in the olive oil they use liberally to prepare items throughout the menu. The oil comes directly from Ali’s family olive grove in Jerusalem and is produced in the traditional manner with donkey and stone, making it entirely pure and authentic, Yamin-Ali said. This particular olive oil is exclusive to the Garden and is available for purchase in bottles as well.
Both Yamin sisters learned to cook from their grandmother and mother while growing up in West Scranton, even making dinner for 17 people in one night, Yamin-Ali said. That taught them the importance not only of hospitality but also of sharing of food among family and friends, which they now make possible for their customers with shareable dishes that are fun to eat.
The Garden Mezza, a traditional start to Middle Eastern meals, is perfect for groups to share and includes grape leaves, hummus, tabbouleh, baba ghannouj (a pureed eggplant dish), imported olives, choice of meat pie or spinach pie as well as fresh pita and hot za’atar bread.
Yamin-Ali harkens back to her street cart days with the New York City-style Chicken Over Rice, which takes shredded, marinated chicken and rice and combines it with white and hot sauces.
Another popular offering at the Garden is the Sunday brunch, served every week from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. In addition to offering unique brunch fare, the Garden serves Kibbee Niyah since “Sunday is always Kibbee Niyah day,” Yamin-Ali said. The dish combines tar-tar style, 99% fat-free beef; cracked wheat; and fresh herbs and spices. To experience a proper bite of the traditional dish, customers should smash it down with a fork, press a hole into it with their thumb, fill the hole with olive oil, tear off some pita bread, take a scoop of the Kibbee Niyah and add some onion and fresh mint.
“It’s a fun way to eat. People love to use their hands and share,” Yamin-Ali said. “It’s communal. It’s like a party.”
The Garden wants every meal it serves to be as fresh as possible and strives to buy its ingredients locally as a way to invest in the community. The restaurant uses only organic ingredients and makes everything in-house, with even its pitas prepared hot and fresh for each sandwich. It butchers its own meat, making sure it is certified organic, grass-fed and acquired through humane means. All the pastries are made from scratch as well, including Ma’amoul, a shortbread-type of pastry dough stuffed with dates and walnuts that is baked one at a time in the same wooden molds the sisters’ grandmother used.
The Garden also has introduced a new event space, the Backroom at the Garden. Originally started as an overflow area for customers during the First Friday Art Walks, it has evolved into a truly versatile space for business meetings, birthday parties, showers and special events — such as improv shows and pop-up shops — and will even host a luncheon with Santa on Saturday, Dec. 14. The Backroom includes internet access, a new sound system, TV hookups and a lounge space for the comfort of customers no matter the occasion.
“We were brought up to be hospitable,” Yamin said. “Grandma had a party for every event.”
Yamin-Ali has something for everybody, from American fusion dishes to authentic Middle Eastern vegan and vegetarian offerings. People from all walks of life can come in and have a good time.
“One thing I like about our restaurant is that people talk to each other,” Yamin-Ali said. “They’re comfortable. People sit and enjoy each other’s company.”
Contact the writer: firstname.lastname@example.org; 570-348-9127
The Garden: A Mediterranean Restaurant
- Address: 116 N. Washington Ave, Scranton
- Phone: 570-299-1723
- Established: Opened in West Pittston in 2016 and moved to Scranton in March 2019
- Owners: Jo Marie Yamin-Ali and Akram Ali
- Cuisine: Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, Lebanese, Moroccan, American fusion, BYOB
- Hours: Tuesdays to Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Fridays, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturdays, 4 to 10 p.m.; Sunday brunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
- Online: Visit the Garden Mediterranean Cafe on Facebook, @thegardenat116 on Instagram and thegardenscranton.com.
If you go
- What: Luncheon with Santa
- When: Saturday, Dec. 14, noon to 1:30 p.m.
- Where: The Backroom at the Garden, 116 N. Washington Ave., Scranton
- Details: Call 570-299-1723 to make a reservation. The event will include games, crafts, karaoke and a special present from Santa.