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Delicious in its details
Cafe owners speak diners' language

By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, September 27, 2009

Sahara Lebanese Market & Cafe
46950 Community Plaza, Sterling
703-421-8252

** (out of four stars)
Sound Check: 69 decibels (Conversation is easy.)

Successful restaurateurs and translators share this much in common, says Nasser Abousamak: They're both good listeners, and they both sweat the small stuff.

Abousamak, 49, knows from serving food and relaying foreign messages. For much of his life, which began in Egypt and brought him to New Jersey as a teen, the Palestinian American worked in hotels and restaurants, even aboard cruise ships. In recent years, he served as a government contractor in the Middle East, where he used his fluency in Arabic to help gather and analyze intelligence for the United States.

His time abroad landed him a wife, fellow American translator Manal Kattaw, 30, whom he met in Kuwait en route to a deployment in Iraq in 2003. The overseas assignments also deepened his appreciation of Lebanese food, which he calls "the most wonderful in the Middle East." Now, the two of them are back in the States, where in May they opened what he calls a "one-stop shop" for falafel, kibbe and kebabs. It's called Sahara Lebanese Market & Cafe, and it brims with flavor.

The falafel are terrific, shatteringly crisp on contact and light green with cilantro, parsley and ground chickpeas in the center. The hummus arrives as a shallow well pooled with olive oil, its garlicky walls striped with paprika. Eggplant puree (baba ghanouj) is blond, tart and smoky. All of those snacks, along with lemony tabbouleh, can be found on the generous $13 vegetarian platter.

Most of the recipes hail from Abousamak's mother, Nagwa, whose thin-shelled beef kibbe tweaked with pomegranate extract and cinnamon are among the best I've had. Other recipes come from Lebanese eateries abroad that the owners liked. Executing the vision in Sterling are six cooks, counting Abousamak, who can jump in if he needs to. ("I always taste the specials before they go out.") The head cook is Celzo Martinez, who comes to this kitchen armed with 16 years of experience with the locally owned Lebanese Taverna group. His boss says he often gets to work as early as 6 a.m. to prepare for the day. Lebanese cooking is nothing if not labor-intensive.

Lamb is my meat of choice here, and it's available as a sandwich, in a mixed grill and as a kebab. The last, cut from sirloin, comes to the table in big, soft chunks that ooze with the flavor of their marinade: vinegar, garlic, olive oil, sumac -- well, you get the point. It's succulent. As do most entrees, this one involves a mountain of rice enriched with chicken broth, and a salad of lettuce, chopped vegetables and fried pita chips, stretching tonight's dinner into tomorrow's lunch. Abousamak says half of his business is carryout, and I can believe it, judging from the steady stream of customers who make their way to the cashier stand near the open kitchen throughout the day.

The abundant vegetarian charms, which include spinach-packed pastries and tasty pickled baby eggplant filled with pureed walnuts, aren't limited to the mezze. One of the best sandwiches on the menu packs thick slices of halloumi cheese, tomatoes, olives and house-made pickles in a warm wrap of pita: a burrito by way of Beirut. The high melting point of the halloumi, which is made from cow and sheep cheese, allows it to keep its shape when grilled.

Here and there, Sahara demonstrates that no kitchen is perfect. Having been spoiled by the airy blimps served at Me Jana in Arlington and Zaytinya in Washington, I'm a little underwhelmed by the thin pita bread served with Sahara's gratis sesame-thyme dip. And as impressive as it looks, the golden rotisserie chicken was unevenly cooked when I tried it. To the bird's (partial) rescue: a whip of pureed garlic, yogurt and white pepper. The snow-white condiment appears tame but packs a serious punch.

The menu says there's pizza, but pizza wasn't available on my visits. Abousamak says he has secured the proper oven but has yet to find just the right pizza maker for the Mediterranean pies he wants to serve and the pita he hopes to have him bake.

Carved from a couple of storefronts, the long cafe looks like a fast-food feeder reimagined by Bravo's "Top Design." Arched panels, their ledges holding colorful hookahs, run along one wall, while mirrors dress up the other side of the dining room. (Hookah smoking is allowed only in a lounge next door.) Faraway music and female customers covered in head scarves and ankle-length frocks let diners imagine they're no longer in Virginia. Between courses, it's fun to check out the adjoining market, where just about anything a Lebanese cook might need -- nuts, spices, cheese -- is stocked. No time to cook? The business recently began selling some of the food it makes, including the kibbe and pastries.

Every time I've dropped by, the owners have been present. "Do you need some more bread?" they ask. "Another drink?" During Ramadan, the Muslim holy month in which adherents fast between sunrise and sunset, I marveled at how quickly the staff assembled a hot buffet for the expected crowd as late afternoon segued into early evening. "Are we missing a party?" a curious diner wanted to know. Abousamak shook his head, smiled and explained, "No one wants to wait for food" when they've not eaten all day.

Details, details. Sahara Lebanese Market & Cafe revels in them.

OPEN: Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Parking lot. No smoking. All major credit cards accepted.

PRICE: Mezze $3.99 to $12.99, entrees $8.99 to $19.99.

KID MENU: Yes

INSIDER TIP: The restaurant sells three kinds of baklava. The house-made version is rich with butter and sugar, the Greek-style dessert (from a local baker) comes sweetened with honey, and the third is imported from Lebanon. The first two cost $3.99 for two wedges; the last, which is five pieces, is $5.99.

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