Thursday, October 30, 2008

An Arabic-Fusion Birthday Bonanza

Who: VN Editorial Director Aurelia d'Andrea
What: An amazing meal at an undiscovered gem
Where: Saha, in San Francisco's Tenderloin district
Why: To celebrate the passing of another year and eat some delicious food
When: October 30, 2008

The Scoop: I have to admit it: I'm not a big fan of birthdays—my own, in particular. There's nothing particularly fabulous about getting older, especially so since the "wiser" thing that's supposed to follow my advancing chronology seems conspicuously absent. Still, if the passing of another year means getting to treat myself to a fabulous multi-course meal, well, bring on the birthdays.

I can't remember how I first heard about Saha, but after perusing their menu online, I knew I wanted to eat there. Okay, so it's not exclusively veg, but it is very vegan-friendly—it says so right there on the menu! But what was most enticing was that this was to be my debut foray into the realm of Arabic-fusion cuisine.

Mohamed Aboghanem is one-half of the team behind Saha, and as the head chef, he draws culinary inspiration from Yemen, where he was born and raised, creating flavorful dishes that also draw from the cuisines of Morocco, Algeria, Ethiopia, and other corners of the Arabic-speaking world.

When Jeff and I arrived on a drizzly Thursday night, we stepped through the foyer of the Hotel Carlton—a certified "green" hotel that gets its power from solar panels fitted on the roof—and past the front desk, and toward the Saha sign. Inside the lantern-lit dining room, we were met by a friendly host who led us to a comfortable table. In one corner of the room, a large party was also celebrating a birthday with dinner, but mostly, the other diners were couples who looked as though they might have chosen this restaurant for its romantic ambience.

The Saha Red Curry nearly caused an episode of public plate-licking

After ordering a glass of bubbly from the amazing wine list and tucking into the hummus and warm pita bread delivered to our table, we feasted our eyes on the menu and tried to choose which tantalizing dish we would begin the meal with—no easy feat. We were drawn to so many of the small plates—Bastilla, Fouel, Kibbeh—but with a little help from our gregarious server, we finally settled on the vegan Knaffe. We savored every bite of this beautiful dish featuring shredded phyllo atop cream cheese and wild mushrooms, served over a lovely puddle of coconut-chermoulah-chipotle sauce. Heaven! The second dish we ordered also featured vegan cream cheese, but the real stars of the Asparagus and Papaya Salad were the perfectly cooked spears of asparagus. Served with tender papaya slices and a mound of tiny arugula leaves, this was the perfect palate cleanser before the main event.

Our helpful server offered expert advice on wine pairing, so while we sipped our Austrian Blaufrankisch, we awaited the arrival of the Saha Red Curry, also on recommendation. The robust Palestinian couscous called Maftoul played off the subtle flavor of the curry, and the butternut squash and tofu balanced the meal. Unlike any curry I'd ever tasted—and I've tasted gazillions—Saha's specialty definitely earned a spot in my personal Curry Hall of Fame. I'd have licked the plate if I were at home.

Dessert was a no-brainer. We would be having the very vegan Bisbusa Yemeni Cake with Lemon-Ginger sorbet. Oh, and a glass of dessert wine, of course. The cake was sweet, but not too, and the sorbet was a bright and refreshing finale to a perfectly satisfying birthday meal. Will we be back? You bet!

Saha's dim lighting didn't dull the beauty of this delicious dessert of
Yemeni cake and lemon-ginger sorbet

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