For diners weary of cookie-cutter restaurants and predictable menus, the Sahara Grille is a welcome oasis. The astonishing array of unusual dishes includes a few that may require an explanation — and pronunciation — by your server. (Sambusic? Fatoush?)
The cuisine is Middle Eastern, and owners Laila and Shafik Zakham wisely opted not to water it down by offering pork chops, spaghetti or hamburgers.
To deal with the lengthy list of intriguing appetizers, try the Sahara Maza Combo ($8.95), which lets you sample four appetizers and easily serves two people.
I highly recommend the crescent-shaped sambusic, a delicate pastry crust stuffed with a mixture of beef, onion and pine nuts.
Don’t miss the refreshing fava bean salad, a mix of fava, chickpeas, and finely diced peppers and tomatoes dressed in lemon juice with garlic and parsley and mint. Other appetizers that tempt and deliver are the fried kibbie, spinach pies and baba ganouge (baba ghanouj).
Sahara’s signature soup is a crushed lentil imbued with cumin — simple, healthful and irresistible.
When you order it, Laila is likely to advise you to top it with crisp, fried pita strips. Take her advice.
If you are unsure which dishes to order, consider the lunch buffet, which launched full time about five months ago. Here you can sample an array of soups, salads, and other Middle Eastern specialties for just $7.99. The lunch menu offers gyros and Grecian salads.
Laila says the best dinner entree for a first-time visitor is the Tour of Sahara platter ($11.95).
“It’s our most popular,” she said. “It consists of Grecian salad, seasoned or plain rice, Sahara fries, and a choice of skewer — beef, lamb, shrimp or chicken.”
The beef is tender, and the lamb is mild, not gamy. Both arrived perfectly charred. My favorite entree was Spinach DeVille ($10.95), a mound of fresh spinach, lightly sautéed with olive oil, lots of garlic, and fragrant pine nuts. I ordered it topped with the chicken shawarma skewer, strips of marinated dark chicken with — is that cinnamon?
Laila isn’t saying.
“It’s our secret seasoning blend,” she said.
Most meals are accompanied by pita and a dish of creamy, smooth humos (hummus), with a slight tang of lemon but none of the bitterness or overwhelming garlic that marks less-refined versions.
Desserts are as exotic as the rest of the menu, and include Mediterranean ice cream with pistachios, baklava, rice pudding and mamoul (filled cookies). The truly adventurous should order the Kanafi. A rectangular thin piece of cheese is topped with a thin cakelike layer made of farina and butter and baked.
“It’s homemade cheese, like mozzarella, but served hot,” Laila explains. “It’s served topped with a simple syrup.”
The exterior of the Sahara Grille, located on the end of a shopping plaza, doesn’t prepare you for the comfortably elegant interior. The decor meshes practicality with style. Tables are well-spaced and carpeting mutes sound. Servers are friendly and well-trained, so they can explain unfamiliar menu items such as kibbie (a mixture of beef and cracked wheat) and fatoush (a Greek-style salad).
4794 Dressler Road NW
Open Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Sun. 11 a.m.- 9 p.m.