ELV is not a Jew, but he plays one on this website.
By that he means he tries to channel the vibe and spirit of the great Jewish food writers of our era — from Seymour Britchky to Alan Richman — into his cynical-but-all-consuming-passion for eating everything, thinking about it, and then writing down his thoughts with a certain…how you say?…acerbic quality that suffers no fools and brooks no compromise.
Truth be told, his admiration for the Jewish culture goes far beyond the food writers it’s given America. When it comes to family, fellowship, personal responsibility, trimming little boy’s penises, and where to find good Chinese food, we think the Jewish culture and their faith gets it right more than any other religion.
The food, however, has always been a different story. Because once you get past the deli counter, most of what Americans know as Jewish food is as boring as a Talmudic debate. For example, where the French have given us the cloud-like quenelles Nantua, Jewish cooks plop a brick of gefilte fish on the plate. Italy gave us pizza; Israel, lavosh. Eastern European Jews gave us the blintz, Escoffier gave us the crepe. We rest our case.
Plus, there is that whole Kashrut dietary law thing that denies one of the fundamental laws of good eating: that ground beef was put on this earth to be topped with cheese. And let’s face it, challah and latkes are good…but they’re boring.
Now, before you start going all Mossad on our gentile ass, you should know we blame this state of affairs on history, not the cooks. Wandering in the desert for forty years (and elsewher) doesn’t leave a lot of time for cultivating herbs and grinding spices. And when you don’t have a country to call your own, it’s pretty hard to develop a culinary identity, much less develop a restaurant culture.
The culprit, as we at ELV see it, is lack of seasonings. In most Jewish households (and yes, we’ve eaten in quite a few of them, Hassidic, Sephardic, Ashkenazi, Reformed and secular), salt and pepper is as exotic as it gets. And when you’re eating in a religion that revers schmaltz (rendered chicken fat) as a primary flavoring ingredient, not many of your taste buds are going to sit up and pay attention. So when we get invited to anything Jewish and edible, outside of a good deli, our response always is, in the immortal words of Samuel Goldwyn: “Include me out.”
That is, until we wandered into Sababa the other day. Because if there’s one thing no one can blame chef/owner Rami Cohen for, it’s going easy on the spices.
Our first clue were the beautifully-seasoned falafel. Instead of the deep-fried, light brown wallpaper paste you usually get, these had a piquancy to them that stayed with you, a lightness unseen in most versions, and a perfectly crunchy and compelling exterior. From the first bite we knew we had been led out of the Jewish culinary desert into the promised land of properly seasoned food. Sitting right underneath them was a surpassingly good baba ganoush — described on the menu as a “tangy melange of sesame and eggplant” — that disappeared quickly.
All the menu says about them is they’re “ground meat rolled into perfectly seasoned pieces that will make your mouth water.” True enough that, but it only tells half the story. They’re slightly small, cooked to medium, and packed with big flavor. They are also juicy and piquant and packing more than a little heat. That heat builds slowly in the mouth, beginning as a touch of pepper and ending with a strong, back of the palate glow lasting for minutes. It is a strong and peppery seasoning, but one that never unduly intrudes on the savoriness of the beef.
Those desperately seeking intrusiveness in their seasonings (in a good way), need only ask for some “home made sizzling hot sauce.” What arrives at your table is a small, plastic cup of an innocuous-looking green substance that resembles a watery pesto.
“How hot can it be?” you ask yourself. “Especially for a food culture barely acquainted with stale black pepper?”
So, we took our spoon and tossed it back. Big mistake.
We don’t know if there’s a Hebrew word for “ay dios mio” but that’s all we could mumble through the heat.
This stuff packs a punch worthy of a Merkava and single-handedly gives lie to the myth of boring, under-seasoned Jewish food. All chef Rami would tell us was it has parsley, coriander, habenero and spices pureed with water, but that’s like describing fire by listing its elements.
How hot is it? Let’s just say that if Israel lined borders with the stuff, it wouldn’t need all those nuclear weapons.
Don’t get the wrong idea; it was also herbaceous and delicious and one of the most unique hot sauces we’ve had in some time.
So delicious, in fact, we can’t wait to return to light ourselves up with more of the stuff. Great hot sauces (and great food) will do that to you.
If ELV had known Jewish food could be this good, he would’ve converted a long time ago.
SABABA GRILLE AND RESTAURANT
3220 South Durango
Las Vegas, NV 89117
(In keeping with traditional Jewish religious custom, the restaurant closes at sundown Friday and all day Saturday.)