Denver has quite a few restaurants that get lumped into the culinary catch-all of "Middle Eastern," even though much of the food they serve comes from an area far larger than the Middle East itself. Morocco, for example, isn't part of the Middle East; it's as far from Iran as New York City is from San Francisco. Still, many kitchens in this city put out a confusing, if delicious, blend of dishes with origins from Casablanca to Tehran — and many points between. While the cuisine of certain countries, such as Turkey and Egypt, are poorly represented here, Moroccan, Syrian, Lebanese and Persian all crop up. For March, Ethniche will delve into a dish or two a week from several different countries. This week, I was looking for tagines and bistella from Morocco and found both at Sahara Restaurant in Centennial.
Sahara has occupied the same shopping center off East Arapahoe Road for more than twenty years, with a plain facade that hides a colorful and welcoming interior. Weekends are the best time to visit, as certain dishes are only available on Friday and Saturday nights and belly dancers stop by on those nights, too. On a recent Friday evening, the dining room stayed mostly full for the two hours or so that my friends and I were there, so a reservation is not a bad idea, especially for groups of more than four.
Scanning the menu, I quickly located the bistella I was hoping for. Spelled pastilla on Sahara's menu (and b'stilla, bastilla or bisteeya elsewhere), the dish is a savory pie generally stuffed with shredded chicken. Traditional versions are large enough to serve eight or ten people, but at Sahara, it's an appetizer and comes as several rolled pastries rather than one big pie. Despite the poultry and other savory spices in the filling, cinnamon and powdered sugar are a standard topping. It seems odd until you consider the standard American Thanksgiving plate, with turkey, stuffing and marshmallow-laden sweet potatoes mingling — often all in one bite.
The finger-food size and configuration of Sahara's pastilla meant they were easy to share and sample without having to commit to an entire pie wedge, but the proportions were a little off, with too much flaky pastry (similar to phyllo dough) compared to the chicken filling, making the pastilla a little dry. There may have been onion, nuts, saffron and other spices in the filling, but the flavors got lost in the presentation.
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A lamb shank tagine layered with golden apricots was more traditional and satisfying. The waiter set the earthenware tagine on the table and removed the conical lid with a flourish, releasing a cloud of steam over the lamb and rice. The shank was buried in a sweetish saffron sauce, a handful of apricots cooked soft and a few Marcona almonds. Slow-cooked inside its miniature clay oven, the lamb was soft and moist and fell apart into a stew with just a touch of the fork, without need of a knife. And as with all good stews, the individual spices and vegetables merged and melded into the overall flavor of the dish, with only the sweet and tangy apricots as punctuation. Although this tagine is big enough to share, Sahara charges extra to split the dish, so it's wiser to order it for yourself and take home any leftovers.
Once dinner service was well under way, the volume of the music rose and a dancer made her way between tables, shimmying with veils, a scimitar and pots of fire at various points in the evening. Along with our food — a few of the Lebanese offerings to round out the Moroccan fare — we sampled Lebanese wine, Turkish beer and arak, an anise-flavored distilled spirit (similar to pastis or ouzo) popular in several Arabic countries among those who partake.
In Denver, it can be tough to isolate the various culinary threads that run through Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and North African cooking. Sahara is worth a visit whether you're in the mood for typical hummus, baba ghanouj and falafel or looking for something more regional and specific.