Food critic

The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2018 Spring Dining Guide.

Lamb and beef kofta kebab with Hawaii-spiced rice, roasted chile and tomato at Sababa in Cleveland Park. (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)


(Not yet rated)

Having opened stylish takes on Indian, Italian and American notions over the decades, restaurateur Ashok Bajaj set his sights on something new this year: modern Israeli cooking. You’ll find it in Cleveland Park, alongside his popular Bindaas, in a room made inviting with illuminated wooden screens on the walls and sails of cloth suspended from the ceiling. Settle in with salatim, an assortment of little dishes that suggest a salad bar, and be sure to try the District’s best halloumi, a slab of warm cheese made delicious with honey and charred lemon. Beyond are charcoal-kissed kebabs (try lamb with beef) and large plates, my pick of which is the catch of the day sparked with lemon and harissa and bundled in grape leaves. The refined nature of much of the food is thanks to chef Ryan Moore, whose background includes kitchen time at such admired dining destinations as Minibar by José Andrés. The transporting appeal of much of the cooking is linked to frequent travel to the Middle East, where the chef has family. He does what he knows, and well.

Sababa: 3311 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-244-6750.

Open: Dinner daily, brunch Sunday.

Prices: Dinner mains $14 to $26, brunch mains $5 to $16.

Sound check: 72 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.

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The following review was originally published March 30, 2018.

Charred eggplant gets a bright, crunchy boost from pistachios and pomegranate at Sababa in Cleveland Park. (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)

Cleveland Park adds a ‘cool’ Israeli option to its neighborhood menu

Say “salatim” at Sababa and your table quickly becomes a little salad bar as a handful of colorful dishes are dispatched from the kitchen. They include rainbow carrots tossed with mint and dates, shredded beets sprinkled with pistachios, and roasted red pepper jazzed up with feta cheese — plus pillowy (rye) pita bread to serve as a scoop.

Sababa is the neighbor to Bindaas, the Indian street-food purveyor, and the successor to Ardeo, the modern American restaurant that enjoyed a 20-year run in Cleveland Park before closing in February. The name of the newcomer translates to “cool” from Hebrew, a fitting and fun detail given that Bindaas, which is also owned by restaurateur Ashok Bajaj, means “cool” in Hindi.

Israeli cooking is on a bit of a roll in the United States right now, spurred by the success of exemplars including Zahav in Philadelphia and Shaya in New Orleans and the vegetable-forward appeal of some of its most popular dishes. Bajaj, who says he’s been working on the concept for two years and recently returned from an eating tour of Israel, recruited Ryan Moore to create the menu, a collection of small plates and kebabs.

The “salatim” features, counterclockwise from top: carrot salad with dates and mint; beet relish with tahini and pistachios; roasted red pepper and feta cheese with lemon thyme; cucumber, dill and pickled red onion; garlic labne with dukkah; and pita bread with za'atar. (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)

The roasted half chicken arrives on a bed of pita and is topped with sumac onions. (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)

The chef, 41, comes with strong credentials, having worked in the past at Zaytinya, the popular Middle Eastern oasis in Penn Quarter; Minibar, the avant-garde spectacle from José Andrés; and most recently alongside Yannick Cam at the French-accented Bistro Provence in Bethesda. Helpfully, Moore has also spent a lot of time in Dubai and Egypt, where members of his family reside.

Fans of halloumi should be steered to the firm roasted cheese, presented with a marmalade sweetened with honey and bold with charred lemon. Devotees of eggplant need to be introduced to the vegetable as it’s executed here, flavored from charring but also from mint, parsley, cumin and pomegranate. The standout among the kebabs are chicken thighs that get a kick from harissa and are by turns crisp and juicy from the wood grill. A bed of warm-spiced rice, yellow with turmeric, makes a fine backdrop.

My maiden meal was uneven, with chicken livers in need of searing, a shake too much salt on the lamb and dishes that came out so fast, dinner could have been done in 20 minutes had we been speed eaters.

Palm fronds and varied light fixtures adorn the dining room at Sababa, which replaced Ardeo in Cleveland Park. (Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)

Round 2 was better in every way, capped with sea bass swaddled in grape leaves and served with a bright tomato-cucumber salad, along with zhug, a hot sauce propelled with serrano and herbs that had taste buds standing at full attention. The wrap keeps the fish moist in the roasting and gets additional flavor from the harissa and thyme tucked inside. Another winning main course is the lemony roasted half chicken, arranged with sumac-sparked onions. The entree’s base of house-baked pita sponges up its seasoning — “my favorite part of the dish,” the chef says of the bread, and I concur.

No trace of Ardeo remains in the dining room, where diners face carved wooden screens or neat rows of palm fronds on the walls, and where they feast below sails of cloth hung from the ceiling. The look, like much of the food, whisks you from Washington for a spell, as does the community feel of the rethought restaurant.

Sababa, indeed.