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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.
San Francisco, CA 94109
Category: Restaurant >
Region: Hayes Valley/ Tenderloin
"3 green things" salad $6
Merguez couscous $16
Lamb tagine $18
Saha Red Curry $14
Lamb shank $20
Chocolate cake with saffron ice cream $6
Open for breakfast Monday through Friday from 7 to 11 a.m.; for brunch Saturday and Sunday from 8 to 11 a.m.; and for dinner Tuesday through Saturday from 6 to 11 p.m.
Muni: 2, 3, 4, 76
Noise level: moderate
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.
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