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The Bland Leading the Bland 

Arab fusion in a new hotel restaurant leaves something to be desired

Wednesday, Jan 5 2005
When a friend is the first to tell me about a new restaurant that hasn't yet appeared on my radar, I reply, automatically, "Would you like to go there with me?," and his answer in the affirmative is usually just as automatic. So I was surprised when Robert e-mailed me about a new Arab fusion restaurant, Saha, in the Hotel Carlton, then blithely declined my offer: "I'm pretty anti-fusion," he replied.

OK, I thought, there certainly have been horrors perpetrated under the banner of fusion, but also many delights, remembering wonderful meals at Wolfgang Puck's pioneering Chinois in Santa Monica and the late-lamented Union Pacific in New York under Rocco Di Spirito, before television turned his pretty head. Why not Arab or Middle Eastern fusion? There have been plenty of colonial influences there, anyway. I'd had nearly as many couscouses in Paris as choucroutes.

However, some enthusiastic postings on Chowhound changed Robert's mind (including one, he said, that coyly concealed the name of the restaurant but mentioned that "whenever I play the lottery, I imagine hiring the chef to cook my every meal"), so we went there for dinner on a chilly night.

The lobby of the newly decorated hotel, once residential but spruced up for the tourist trade, was rather glamorous and inviting, with Asian furniture (an altar table, a chest of drawers) sprinkled about, modern armchairs upholstered in hot colors, and a collection of modish globes atop a tall armoire. Saha, down a short hall, was less eclectic in décor, but quite pleasing, with dark wood floors, bright red leather chairs, a long family table under a row of chic, vaguely Arabic pendant lamps in molded fabric, and a row of color photographs of Middle Easterners in native dress. The only discordant note was the too bright, unbalanced lighting. And perhaps the location of the table we were given, a four-top for the two of us, placed right up against the edge of the open doorway leading to the lobby: It felt a trifle drafty and exposed.

The menu included almost 20 dishes listed under "small plates," some familiar (hummus, kofta, kibbeh, fouel -- or foul mudummas) and some not (knaffe, kapsah). There was no user-friendly mezze plate, so we probably ordered more starters than we should have for the two of us: hummus, knaffe, kibbeh, and a fattoush salad. The hummus came out immediately, a silky-smooth version of the classic ground chickpea spread topped with a bit of spicy oil. Robert liked it quite a bit ("It has lots of tahini," he said), but I found it ordinary -- a good, straightforward hummus, but you can get good hummus almost everywhere. And I was dismayed by the equally ordinary commercial pita wedges that came alongside it, right off a grocery shelf, not even warmed, much less grilled.

The knaffe -- a chunk of seared tuna still rare at its heart, crusted with shredded phyllo, topped with a relish of kalamata olives and walnuts, sided with limp potato strings, and set on a fig sauce -- I found somewhat odd. Sweet figs, bitter olives, crunchy phyllo, toothy nuts, and the soft flesh of the fish: The combinations of textures and flavors never quite made sense or came together for me. And the kibbeh was also disappointing. Its cracked bulgur wheat coating wasn't fried to a crackling shell as it should have been, and its stuffing of ground beef (instead of the usual lamb), onions, and pine nuts was mushy and bland. The fattoush -- a Lebanese bread salad made with toasted pita, feta, lettuce, cucumber, tomatoes, olives, red onions, cilantro, mint, and sumac -- tasted as if a slightly aging salad had been updated with an infusion of fresh ingredients. Not the dish's finest hour.

A dozen entrees were on offer, including several interesting-sounding vegetarian options (a crispy polenta tower with eggplant, spinach, and shiitake mushrooms over a roasted tomato-harissa sauce; mujadara, a Lebanese lentils and rice dish, here served with roasted tofu, vegetables, and tahini; and Saha Red Curry, a stuffed acorn squash also served with tofu and vegetables). The list also included -- and remember, it's a hotel restaurant -- a quarter-pound cheeseburger with fries and a New York steak with mashed potatoes and zatar sauce, for that fusion touch, made with the Middle Eastern spice mix that usually includes powdered hyssop and sumac. We chose classically, skipping over the crab island (crabmeat and wild mushrooms wrapped in phyllo and served over saffron sauce) and the barbecued salmon and shrimp with sweet potatoes for a lamb tagine with prunes and almonds and the preserved lemon and olive chicken with turned potatoes.

If the lamb had been cooked in the Moroccan pottery tagine that the dish is named for, the dome had been removed before it came to the table in a circular ramekin. I suspected that a large quantity had been cooked in a tagine, divided up, and then reheated in smaller containers, probably in the oven, because the lamb cubes were dried out on top. Still, it was the tastiest dish we had that night. The chicken (also usually prepared in a tagine, though not in this version) would have been much more flavorful had it been made with skin-on dark meat rather than its skinless and boneless white meat, sitting in a thin lemon sauce with some green olives and shreds, not chunks, of the preserved lemons themselves. At least it included some lovely little steamed potatoes, moister than the chicken and more accepting of the sauce.

The recital of the desserts available that night -- chocolate fondue, pear tart, warm chocolate cake -- didn't arouse our appetites, especially when we found out that only the chocolate fondue was made in-house. Where was baklava, tapioca pudding, or even traditional knaffe? (When I tried to track down the source for the tuna appetizer, it seemed to be a takeoff on a sweet pastry served in coffeehouses in Jerusalem and Ramallah or, spelled with one "f," a Lebanese pastry made with phyllo and ricotta cheese.)

Another chilly night, another dinner, this time with Peter and Anita, and a snugger table, tucked into the corner banquette nearest the kitchen. Tonight the lights are too low: We need a candle to read the menu. We start with the sadly named, badly conceived Shit-talkin' Ravioli: thickish pasta stuffed with minced shiitake mushrooms, sitting in a mango sauce. The mushrooms do nothing for the mango, and vice versa. And the Frenchly named bastille, aka b'steeya, the layered phyllo pie in its fusion version now a beggar's purse of phyllo sheets stuffed with shredded chicken and very little evidence of the almonds, onions, parsley, spices, and egg mentioned on the menu. It is not just underspiced, but also undersalted (in fact, we are reaching for the salt shaker with every dish). Peter rejects the pomegranate-glazed asparagus with white anchovies: "I just don't think pomegranate goes with asparagus," he says. "We could always try," I reply, but he chooses the Ten Crust Pizza, a perfectly nice puff pastry shell topped with artichoke spread, goat cheese, tomato confit, roasted figs, and eggplant that seems like something you would throw together for an impromptu cocktail party. The ingredients sit around as though they haven't been properly introduced.

The best starter is the "3 green things" salad of edamame (soy beans), insufficiently drained thin French green beans, and ripe avocado tossed with a mustard-ginger vinaigrette, but Peter points out that edamame and green beans are also peeking out under another dish, the acorn squash topped with a firm tofu round, sauced with a bland, thin curry, and adorned with mushrooms, spinach, and the pearl barley-like muftoul (identified as Palestinian couscous on the menu). We try the merguez couscous (Saha also offers vegetable and chicken versions), and the three merguez sausages are unusually juicy and well spiced, but I am a trifle dismayed by the meager quantity of couscous they come with and the boring, equally ungenerous array of vegetables, mostly zucchini and squash. The bowl of vegetable broth is underspiced; the harissa is, surprisingly, wildly hot.

The lamb shank (wittily described as "with a twist of Yemen") comes unadorned, sitting in a rather wan gravy. Its flesh pulls away from the bone in a promising fashion, but it lacks -- as I've come to expect over the course of two meals here -- much evidence of the saffron, ginger, green olives, and cinnamon the menu so enticingly says it's braised with. This is timid cooking.

We end with a round of white cake topped with white chocolate mousse and passion fruit, which we don't finish, and a perfectly nice warm chocolate cake sided with fragrant saffron ice cream, a particularly exciting flavor combination. I am still hungry when we leave, and I am perplexed. I've had much more highly flavored and knowing Middle Eastern food lately (not to mention much cheaper) at the Turkish and Armenian Gyro King (25 Grove), the dive across the street from the Main Library, where I love the lahmacun (aka Armenian pizza), the stuffed vegetarian or meat pies, the amazing appetizer combo plate, which is listed as six salads on the menu but can contain up to a dozen (including hummus, eggplant salad, baba ghanouj, and the fiery ezme, a blazing combination of mashed tomatoes, walnuts, parsley, onion, and red pepper sauce) -- indeed, I love everything I've tried there -- and at Zand's (1401 Solano) in Albany, a humble spot where you dine at tiny tables near shelves laden with groceries, but whose sampler platter boasts unusual Persian chicken salad, a firm frittata full of chopped parsley and dill called kookoo sabzi, and a baked saffron rice dish with shredded chicken and barberries called tah-cheen, in addition to wonderful hummus, falafel, and other delights. These memories make my mouth water, as my two pricey, oddly muted meals at Saha did not.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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