Inside story at Sahara Café

Sahara Café chef Mavash Rubino is from Iran, and the range of Middle Eastern fare that she prepares shows a distinct Persian accent. Sahara ranks right up there with other local Persian spots. LEO Photos by Nicole Pullen.

LEO’s Eat ‘n’ Blog with Louisville HotBytes
(Sahara Café, Wild Eggs)

A small puzzle accompanies Sahara Café, a new Middle Eastern eatery in St. Matthews: Is it a restaurant inside a shop, or is it a shop inside a restaurant?

I think maybe it’s both. Located in the new retail building at the northeast corner of Lexington Road and Bauer Avenue, just down the street from Lotsa Pasta, its close but comfortable quarters incorporate the family-owned Sahara Café and A Small World, a gift shop featuring, they say, “handcrafted home-decor items from around the world.”

It’s an amiable mix, with enough wood-look tables and purple chairs to accommodate maybe 20 hungry people for lunch or early dinner, an open kitchen where you can watch the cooks and servers bustling around, and an eclectic collection of, um, home-decor items that range from attractive sangria pitchers to oversize, good-looking Persian carpets hanging on the walls.

But we came for the food, and the food is good. Very good indeed, in fact. The geographical name may suggest North Africa, but the friendly young server told us that the cook – his mother – is from Iran, and the range of Middle Eastern fare that she prepares shows a distinct Persian accent that won’t be unfamiliar to fans of the city’s other excellent Iranian restaurants. Write this down: Sahara Café’s fare is right up there with such other local Persian stars as Saffron’s and Shiraz.

As you might expect of a tiny spot that’s a store within a store (or vice versa), Sahara’s menu is not overly long, and it’s very attractively priced. There’s a selection of appetizers, soups and salads and seven or eight sandwiches, wraps and main courses (almost always including daily specials) that start at $2.99 for hummus, grape leaves and stuffing, tabooli, falafel and more, and top out at $8.99 for entrees (not counting the hearty Combo Plate, which serves two for $11.99). There’s a good selection of vegetarian items, marked on the menu with a tiny carrot symbol for reassurance. Most meat dishes offer a choice of beef and chicken; our server said lamb may be added to the mix when cooler weather arrives.

We went for the Combo Plate, which consists of six items served on a good-size platter, and added the soup of the day and an extra salad. And a dessert. I told you this is good stuff.

Outstanding baghlava from the Sahara Café.

First up were the extras: The Sahara salad ($2.99) was a tangy mix of neatly diced tomatoes, red onions and cucumbers, tossed with a tart lemon-juice dressing. Soup of the day was a veggie delight so hearty that I didn’t even realize it contained no meat until I got home and checked my notes. Thick spaghetti and a medley of pre-frozen but tasty veggies – yellow corn, green beans, diced carrots – swam in an aromatic, lemony broth with shreds of long-cooked spinach greens and a ration of bulghur simmered into the equivalent of tiny soup pasta with an extra burst of wheaten flavor. An elusive aromatic – saffron, maybe – gave it an extra whiff of the exotic East.

The combo arrived on a large platter, a variety of dishes perched on an ample supply of tender lavash flatbread wedges, the Persian answer to pitas.

Tabooli contained a high parsley-to-bulghur ratio, which earned my wife’s applause. It was tossed with tomato and onions and a tangy, lemony dressing.

Six flat, dark-golden falafel patties were sizzling hot and totally grease-free, their greenish interior loaded with herbs. Two “Mediterranean beef patties” were dense and firm, thin rounds of chopped beef with a deep, intense flavor, dusted with sumac and a hint of piquant spice, served in a small bowl with yogurt-and-herb dressing.

Chicken shawarma proved to be a bowl of chopped bits of boneless chicken cooked with aromatics – I thought I detected lemon and garlic and yogurt – spread on a mound of delicately scented basmati rice and tender brown lentils and topped with lots of chopped parsley.

The Persian name “Dulmeh” echoes the Greek dolmades or stuffed grape leaves, but these are deconstructed stuffed grape leaves: The edible marinated leaves lined a small bowl filled with a soft, rich pale-green … what? On close examination, it appears to be savory white rice cooked into a pudding-like consistency and deliciously flavored with more of those exotic, elusive lemony and herbal Persian spices that we can’t quite name. OK, it tastes “green,” all right?

We trundled out with a big take-home box and still more extras – a daily special bowl of smoked eggplant dip, whole eggplants smoked over wood, then pureed and mixed with tangy citrus and Persian aromatics, topped with flavored yogurt. And outstanding baghlava (Persian for “baklava”), flaky sweet phyllo rolled around fine-chopped nuts and scented with a haunting hint of rose water, lighter and more intriguing than the usual sticky honey. A note on the counter declared them “best in town,” and I think they might not be exaggerating.

Service was as friendly and hospitable as you’d expect if you were a guest in a Persian home, and a ridiculously indulgent lunch that provided enough leftovers for dinner came to $28.05, plus a $5.95 tip.

Sahara Mediterranean Café
3701 Lexington Road