When Ryan Moore was creating the menu for Sababa, the current reason to book dinner in Cleveland Park, one dish the chef knew he had to include was kushari, a shallow mound of rice, chickpeas and lentils with a well of stinging tomato sauce and a topping of fried red onions. When a fork inserted into the dish is extracted with a taste of everything — rice, spice and crackle — a diner understands when Moore says kushari is “the first and last thing I eat in Egypt,” where the chef has family and the rib-sticker is popular.
Count me a big fan of the dish (also spelled koshary or koshari), one of several small plates that call to me at the fledgling restaurant. Two years in the making, Sababa feels very much of the moment, featuring the vegetable-rich cuisine of Israel and other Middle Eastern countries, a repertoire of dishes that have been gathering steam at destination restaurants around the country.
Sababa makes a good neighbor to Bindaas, the adjoining Indian street food source also owned by Ashok Bajaj. How perfect that the names of the restaurants translate to “cool,” in Hebrew and Hindi, respectively. The owner closed the modern American spot Ardeo to make room for Sababa; was that hard to do after a run of two decades? “I always like learning,” says an unsentimental Bajaj.
Part of the chef’s research involved a trip to Zahav in Philadelphia, the trailblazing Israeli restaurant from Michael Solomonov, the recipient of last year’s prestigious Outstanding Chef award from the James Beard Foundation. Moore’s big takeaway from his time there: The best hummus is fresh hummus. “Even 30 minutes later” the texture changes, says the chef, who makes Sababa’s garlic-forward, super-creamy chickpea dip himself. The spread, speckled with sumac and served with saucer-size pita bread, rolled and baked on site, is supreme.
You’ll want to order a few dishes at a time, so as not to have everything you ask for rush to the table like starving interns to free happy hours. (Pacing can be problematic here.) I like the idea of some salads and spreads (salatim) to start, if not the execution of every selection. Along with some hummus, request the thick and nicely tangy labneh — lightly salted strained yogurt — zapped with the spice mix dukkah. Other choices taste like the work of the pastry chef. Both the carrot salad with dates and the roasted red pepper dip with feta skew sweet.
Like Bindaas, Sababa revels in small plates. One of the prettiest presentations brings a garland of lush raw tuna, cucumbers and jalapeño, a ring of goodness and light. The hottest of the pack goes by the name Not for the Faint of Heart, which compels daredevils to challenge one another to a duel of sorts: Who can handle what level of heat on the plate of zhug, the hot sauce of choice in Israel, and assorted roasted chiles? (My threshold turns out to be stubby yellow habaneros.) Much of the rest of the collection — fried cauliflower hit with tahini and dill, charred eggplant ramped up with cumin, pomegranate and mint — further rewards diners for eating their vegetables.
As you might expect of a Middle Eastern retreat, kebabs take up some real estate on the menu. Chicken (thigh meat turbocharged with fiery housemade harissa) is most memorable, followed by salmon enhanced with pomegranate and onions, and steak, shy chunks of beef that need something, anything, to make them worth finishing. Whatever your fancy, the kebabs benefit from time on a wood grill and a bed of spiced rice.
Is the chef, whose work history includes Zaytinya in Penn Quarter, holding back? Several dishes are surprisingly restrained. Consider the lamb shank, a meaty tower rising from a nest of shredded red cabbage. The first impression is swaggering, but the meat that falls from the bone is ordinary and the cabbage is too sweet by half.
No such qualms keep you from devouring the other large plates, including a changing fish that picks up flavor from its grape leaf wrap, and a meatless tagine, presented beneath a domed top, whose charred vegetables — cabbage, carrots, tomatoes — enrich a fluffy bed of couscous. As with the kebabs, chicken rules the roost. I could eat Moore’s lemony, garlicky roast half chicken every day. The entree is delivered with a tangle of sumac-flavored onions and on pita that absorbs all the juices.
Desserts reference the Middle East, with bites of halvah, the sesame candy, in the decadent chocolate pot de crème and shredded phyllo atop the konafi cake pairing apricot and labneh.
The multiple pleasures of the menu extend to the dining room, outfitted with settees in the cozy front lounge, overhead sails of cloth and a wall of wooden slats through which some greenery pokes. As the night wears on, a string of small lights and wooden screens, illuminated from behind, bathe the place in a golden glow.
At this point in his long career in Washington, Bajaj is as famous as the boldfaced names who frequent the 10 establishments in his Knightsbridge Restaurant Group, which he impressively makes a point to visit every day they’re open. Maybe that’s why the peripatetic host can appear distracted as he makes the rounds, sometimes breaking conversation in mid-sentence with one table to acknowledge the many other guests he knows by name or profession or both. Yet neighbors in particular appear happy to have a change of pace in a part of the city whose restaurant row in
recent years has been reduced to just a few good-or-better options. (Insider tip: The second floor of Sababa offers the Bindaas menu when the latter restaurant is at capacity.)
All in all, pretty cool if you ask me.
3311 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-244-6750. sababauptown.com.
Open: Dinner daily, brunch Sunday.
Prices: Small plates $8 to $10, kebabs and large plates $14 to $26.
Sound check: 80 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.