By Jonathan Shikes
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Even though we're tasting from the same plate, the lamb shawarma I eat and the lamb shawarma my friend Gerry eats are two different dishes. When Gerry takes a bite of the grilled, marinated lamb, she's eating a traditional dish created by her Lebanese ancestors, an entree that her grandmother made and her mother still makes. She eats the lamb shawarma of a person who grew up in New York eating it hot from the kitchen, alongside a big platter of steamy pita bread, some oil-slicked olives and stuffed grape leaves in tomato sauce.
I eat the lamb shawarma of a person who grew up in a Pittsburgh suburb, not too far away in miles, but worlds away in terms of cuisine, where ethnic food meant Ragu spaghetti sauce, La Choy chop suey and the occasional kielbasa at a cookout. So the first couple of times I ate the cooking of Greece and Lebanon and Armenia, I thought it was all incredible. It was only after many, many Middle Eastern meals at many different restaurants -- first in Pittsburgh, near the colleges, where late-night ethnic was a must-have, and later in New York -- that I started to be able to discern between good and not-so-good Middle Eastern food.
And so, even though Gerry can enthuse about Lebanese dishes most of us have never heard of (for a foodie, hearing about fabulous cooking without being able to taste it is akin to being a football player stuck on the sidelines during the big game), much less tasted, we both know mediocre lamb shawarma when we eat it, and we were eating it most recently at Sahara Restaurant, a seven-year-old Middle Eastern eatery in a strip mall on Arapahoe Road.
9636 E. Arapahoe Road
Englewood, CO 80112
Region: Southeast Denver Suburbs
Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday
When her mom isn't in town to do the cooking, Gerry has always headed for Sahara, but even she had to admit that things weren't up to their usual standards during our lengthy initial visit. For starters, we had only two courses and we were there for nearly two and a half hours, most of which was spent waiting for things to arrive. This in a place that has on the front of its menu: "Hospitality is a stringent duty all over the Arab world. The ultimate aim of civility and good manners is to please the guest." We didn't experience bad manners, but the service at Sahara was awful that first time and only slightly better the second.
The food was all over the map both times. The cook, co-owner Jihad Younan, a Lebanese transplant who started Sahara with his partner, front-of-the-house man Mohammed Ettachfini, from Morocco, says the recipes are his and have been accumulated and refined over the years. But while the recipes themselves may be sound, our meals indicated that the kitchen needs a wake-up call.
For instance, a plate of hummus with meat ($6.50) featured a thick chickpea purée, too light on the lemon and garlic, strewn with thin slices of beef that were on the dry side, along with a half-dozen shreds of carrot and onion (the "grilled vegetables" promised on the menu). The baba ghanouj ($4.50) was much more flavorful, strong with smoky eggplant and thinner than the hummus, making for easier spreading on the pitas, which were obviously of the commercially mass-produced variety.
We were confused by the dough used on the rakaik with lahme ($5.95), which, according to the description under the name on the menu, was supposed to be flaky pastry "fingers" filled with ground beef, except that lahme means lamb, not beef, and the pastry was more like piecrust than phyllo, the traditional wrapper for a dish I've always seen called lahm bi'ajeen, which translates to "meat with dough." This dough also had the texture of the commercially prepared rather than the khoubiz type of dough usually used by Lebanese cooks, and that made the little crescents heavier than normal. But the beef filling, augmented with minced onions and a hint of cinnamon, was well-melded and tasty.
Our other starter, the grape leaves ($4.75), was flawless. In fact, they exceeded our expectations. I often pass on grape leaves because they can be slimy, days old, and sometimes taste like overly fermented vinegar, but at Sahara, the six little bundles were mildly lemony, moist but not soggy, and filled with freshly cooked rice, diced tomatoes and chickpeas. Best grape leaves I've ever had.
The entrees, however, were another toss-up, with the kabob combination ($14.50) offering dried-out meats -- it's easy to do that to lamb and chicken, but how did they get the shrimp so devoid of moisture? -- and that lamb shawarma ($10.75), also dry and lacking any distinguishing flavors. Actually, it tasted as though it had been cooked days before and reheated. The sahen lamb ($11.75) on the other hand, was stunning, a pile of succulent, unbelievably tender lamb strips cooked with lemon -- which remained an underlying note rather than the main chorus -- and onions, served over rice that had been colored and flavored with saffron and sprinkled with toasty pine nuts. It was the kind of dish that had us rolling our eyes with every bite, but it was strange in juxtaposition to the other, lackluster dishes.