Location: 2121 Murray Ave., Squirrel Hill. 412-422-8000. www.sababapgh.com
Hours: Tue.-Sat. noon-9 p.m.
Fare: Middle Eastern
Atmosphere: Big, bright and warm
Bloomfield is Pittsburgh's Little Italy, and it's got the restaurants to prove it. The South Hills is becoming a destination for South Indian cuisine. And Ethiopian restaurants are clustering in East Liberty (if two -- albeit the only two we have -- counts as a cluster). But where does one go for Middle Eastern food?
Although Pittsburgh doesn't have a Middle Eastern neighborhood as such, Middle Eastern dining has found a natural home in Squirrel Hill. True, the traditional Jewish population there is of Eastern European, Ashkenazi extraction, but the last 10 years have seen a distinct shift toward an Israeli frame of reference. One of the ways this has manifested itself is in the closing of delicatessens and opening of -- you guessed it -- Middle Eastern restaurants.
The latest is Sababa, which takes its name from an Arabic word, absorbed into Israeli slang, meaning, broadly, "cool" or "it's all good." The bright, open space is cheerful with a pleasant bustle of activity between the tables, the takeout counter with its row of stools and the kitchen behind it. A potted basil plant serves as a centerpiece on every table, and a large, Warhol-esque painting of a filled pita pocket serves as the restaurant's emblem, a fitting synthesis of local culture, Middle Eastern eats and a modern aesthetic sensibility.
The menu has an emphasis on appetizers and "quick bites" such as sandwiches and wraps, but there were enough entrees, both vegetarian and not, to keep us from filling up on small plates. Unable to choose among the appetizers, we ordered "The Rainbow," a sampler of every appetizer on the menu, all served together on a big lazy Susan. Actually, not quite every appetizer: hummus comes in two varieties, standard and "Sababa-style." While the former is included in The Rainbow, we made a special request for the latter, and recommend that you do the same. There's nothing wrong with the standard version (although it's a bit on the dry, grainy side), but the Sababa hummus is topped with finely minced hardboiled eggs and warm chickpeas in a dressing of olive oil, lemon and parsley, adding texture and deepening the complexity of its earthy tang.
Baba ghanoush comes in three varieties: traditional, Turkish and -- as per our server -- Spanish. This one was an intensely flavored, crimson-colored dish, rich with cooked tomato and herbs; it reminded us of a Middle Eastern roasted salsa. The baba ghanoush was good enough to eat straight, flavorful enough to act as a condiment on a sandwich or with meat. The traditional baba was bland in comparison, but the Turkish, with chopped tomatoes and parsley, offered a more rounded flavor.
Grape leaves were filled with rice cooked in a savory broth such that it was almost a stew, making for a delicious alternative to Greek-style grape leaves. But perhaps the best part of any of the appetizers was the homemade pitas that came with them. Served warm, these thick, fluffy discs were hearty and chewy without being the least bit dry or heavy.
On our sandwich, we tried Sababa's other bread option, lafa, which was larger and thinner, closer to typical pita but more tender. Within was wonderfully moist and nutty falafel commingling with tahini, hummus and Israeli salad in the wrap, ensuring plenty of flavor in each bite.
We also ordered a mixed grill with shwarma and shishlik, grilled chunks of marinated chicken. These were tasty and moist, with occasional bits of char for flavor, while the shwarma -- here a distinctive blend of lamb and turkey meat, carved off a spit gyro-style and then grilled again -- also sported plenty of char. The intensely savory meat might have been more successful surrounded in a sandwich rather than eaten with a fork. The real stars of this entrée were the sides: excellent, flavorful grilled vegetables and a mound of majadra, a sort of rice pilaf studded liberally with firm, nutty lentils and sweet caramelized onions.
We further tested the prowess of Sababa's vegetarian cooking with shakshuka, two eggs over-easy in a stew of cooked tomatoes, peppers and onions. Unfortunately, the promise of this dish was overwhelmed by an excess of dried oregano.
Finally, we tried a couple of offerings from the children's menu, chicken and corn "schnitzel." The chicken looked like a fast-food nugget, only less natural, with an alarmingly regular, ovoid shape. The corn had good, fritter-like flavor, but it, too, reminded us of a kidney-shaped swimming pool, breaded and fried.
But that's OK, sababa. Next time the little connoisseurs will eat from the adult menu, which includes some of the best Middle Eastern food in town.
- Heather Mull
- Sababa hummus (foreground), with assorted appetizers