DC has a handful of famous local restaurateurs. While many restaurateurs started elsewhere and then came to D.C. to open restaurants when D.C. became “trendy,” there are a few individuals who knew D.C. would turn into a national dining destination long ago. One such person is of course larger-than-life Jose Andres, the face of Think Food Group, Inc., known for his whimsical restaurants all around D.C, and now, around the country. The late Mark Kuller, founder of Proof, Estadio, and Doi Moi whose son Max Kuller now runs his restaurant group, Fat Baby, Inc. was another such person. And then there is Ashok Bajaj, owner of Knightsbridge Restaurant Group, the company behind no less than ten of D.C.’s upscale, high-end dining venues, including perhaps D.C.’s most famous restaurant of all, Rasika. But there is so much more to Knightsbridge Restaurant Group than Rasika.
This year, Bajaj closed one of his ten restaurants, Ardeo + Bardeo, the first time this has happened in Knightsbridge Restaurant Group’s nearly 30 year history. In place of the twenty year old restaurant, he opened Sababa, D.C.’s first sit down “modern” Israeli restaurant. Which of course leads to the question: what is “modern” Israeli food?
While modern Israeli food sounds especially exotic, the menu at Sababa actually features dishes and ingredients you are probably already familiar with. The dishes are rife with ingredients like eggplant, pomegranate, harissa, and cauliflower, and the menu offers typical middle eastern fare like hummus, falafel, fried halloumi, and freshly baked pita bread.
The creativity of the cuisine at Sababa lies in the details. Each of these classic middle eastern dishes has a distinctive twist. The Israeli salad for example has cucumber, tomato, onion—and mango. The unexpected bite of sweetness was awesome; a welcome contrast to the other tart and cool flavors of the salad. Falafel is made with fava beans instead of chickpeas, which makes for an earthier and brighter falafel. Charred eggplant is drizzled with an atypical labne, one that is infused with green herbs, adding a bold, fresh element to the meaty eggplant dish. Larger entrées are available as well, but honestly I would stick with the small plates. They are more interesting, plus you get to try more and share more.
Cocktails at Ashok’s restaurants are always a good thing but honestly the homemade sodas at Sababa are equally as tempting. This may have been the first time in my life I wanted a non-alcoholic drink instead of a boozy one but honestly pomegranate rose soda is pretty hard to pass up.
Being the glutton I am I tried all three desserts and would recommend all three. If you love chocolate, the pot de crème is silky and sweet, but for anyone who likes a dessert with texture get the konafi cake, which is made with crunchy shards of phyllo and a creamy apricot filling. Best of all is the rose syrup laden strawberry-kissed milk custard, dotted with pistachio brittle, and adorned with fresh mint.
So back to the original question: what is modern Israeli food? Apparently, a striking hodge-podge of middle eastern flavors and dishes, with a few unexpected culinary twists. In other words, a culinary ride worth taking.
First two photos by Greg Powers, courtesy of Sababa