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Published: Thursday, 10/5/2006

Restaurant review: Sahara Restaurant ***

The Sahara Restaurant is an object lesson in why first impressions aren't always right.

A first visit to the Mediterranean-American caf was an extreme disappointment. A second was a total success, and a third was mixed but ended up firmly on the bright side.

The Sahara is a storefront eatery between a framing shop and an insurance agency in a strip shopping center on Dussel Drive, west of Holland Road. It was formerly called Martini's but the previous owner pulled up stakes and headed to Chicago to try his culinary skills there, according to a server.

The interior has booths along the west side, a bar and kitchen along the east, with tables and chairs in the center of the room. (The manager said the Sahara has been granted a liquor license, and the bar should be in business in a couple of weeks.)

The walls are faux painted and the booths have "roofs" of draped cloth, hinting at exotic bazaars. The room is lit by two huge, fascinating chandeliers that look as if they are made of burnished aluminum. It's an interesting and pleasing mix.

The lunch and dinner menus are printed on paper place mats, which has the effect of diners seeing other possibilities every time they take a bite.

The appetizer list includes American favorites such as potato skins ($3.95) and mozzarella cheese sticks ($4.50) and Mediterranean offerings such as hummus with pita ($3.50) and fried kibbie ($5.95). We opted for the grape leaves ($5.50) and something called Greek nachos ($5.95).

The grape leaves were filled with a mix of rice and meat and had a hint of lemon in the dressing. They were tasty and easily could have been an entre with the addition of a salad. The Greek nachos were another matter. Pita chips were topped with thousand-island dressing, feta cheese, and hot spices that had me lurching for the water glass. They looked like something a college student would put together from on-hand ingredients the day before payday, and I found them nearly inedible.

A dinner of shish kabob ($14.95) was perfectly cooked, the meat just a bit pink in the center, the green peppers and onions still crunchy, but it was curiously bland and could have used some sort of marinade.

On the second visit, we ordered grilled chicken breast and a shrimp saut ($12.95 each), and the meals were marvelous. The shrimp were plentiful and were cooked through without being tough, and the garlic butter sauce was so tasty, we sopped up every last drop with pita bread. The grilled chicken was juicy and wonderfully spiced.

To top it off, the chef offered us espresso-sized cups of Lebanese coffee, strong and flavored with cardamom. It was a smooth finish to a perfect meal.

A few days later, we did carry-out, after having noticed on previous visits that the restaurant was doing a lively take-away business. One meal (each $5.95) included a gyro sandwich with fries that more accurately were spiced potato wedges, and the second had spinach pie and rice. Both came with a small side of hummus.

They were packaged in the ubiquitous Styrofoam boxes and were still hot when we got them home. They were so hot, in fact, that the generous portion of sauce on the gyro had melted and flowed over the fries. The sandwich was messy, with meat that was in long chunks, not the thin strips one is used to finding in gyros. It tasted just fine, though. The spinach pie was a smidge better than fair. I'm not fond of overly spiced foods, and the pie seemed bland even to me. Having said that, I'll admit to polishing off the entire slice, and the carryout portion of rice pudding more than made up for any shortcomings.

The last time I checked, there was construction around the strip shopping center, as the building was being painted and generally spruced up and the parking lot repaired.

Patrons using mobility equipment might need a helping hand maneuvering in the small foyer between the outside of the building and the restaurant itself. The restrooms seem spacious, but getting through the aisles between tables might be a tight squeeze.

Contact Bill of Fare at: fare@theblade.com.



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