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 Sahara starters: clockwise from upper left, hummus, kibbeh nayeh, baba ghaouji and fatoush with string cheese.
Sahara starters: clockwise from upper left, hummus, kibbeh nayeh, baba ghaouji and fatoush with string cheese. Photo by Graham Hicks

Sahara Mediterranean and Canadian Cuisine

#110, 10807 Castledowns Road|

780-371-1113

saharaedmonton.com

11 a.m. to 1 a.m. seven days a week

Food: 4.5 of 5 Suns

Ambience: 3.5 of 5 Suns

Service: 3 of 5 Suns

Dinner for two excluding drinks and tip: Basic, $40; loaded, $70

Graham Hicks

780 707 6379

graham.hicks@hicksbiz.com

www.hicksbiz.com

@hicksonsix

The dispersion of ethnic communities in this League of Nations we know as Edmonton has always been intriguing.

Why didn’t the Filipinos congregate in one neighbourhood? They’re dispersed through Mill Woods, Clareview and Castledowns.

The South Asians (or East Indians) like to live in the southeast — where most of the East Indian shops and restaurants are to be found.

Chinatown is downtown 97 Street, but subsequent generations live all over the city.

The Vietnamese started, as recent African arrivals are doing today, as refugees along 107 Avenue.

The Italians, once centred around 95 Street’s Little Italy, are now all over, though strongest in the north end.

And once the second generation was educated with careers, they married Ukrainian, German, English and Scottish colleagues/classmates and moved their bi-cultural families to the west end, Riverbend and Windermere! O Canada!

One ethnic group, however, has been anchored in the north end. The Arabic-speaking community — Christians, Muslims, Druze, from Lebanon and across the Middle East — have clustered north of 132 Avenue at least since the late ‘70s.

Because the community’s shops, restaurants, mosques and churches are concentrated in one geographical neighbourhood, they aren’t well known outside that community.

Which brings me to the Sahara Bar & Grill (according to the bill), or the Sahara Mediterranean and Canadian Cuisine (according to the signage), or the Sahara Edmonton Mediterranean & Greek Restaurant (according to the website).

Whatever the name, it’s away up on Castledowns Road at about 166 Avenue and 108 Street.

The Sahara is a very big restaurant, at least 150 seats with a contemporary, Middle-Eastern décor, designed for both everyday dining and special occasions, with a big dance floor and a stage.

It also, hands-down, makes the best “Mediterranean” food in town.

But the facility has little interest in marketing outside its cultural reach. As a reviewer, I keep close tabs on the city’s restaurant scene. Yet I only heard about Sahara through an Arab-Christian friend originally from Israel.

This exclusivity is a pity, because the food is superb.

On the restaurant rating websites — Zomato, Yelp, Trip Advisor — you will often see “most authentic” associated with the Sahara, and they are right.

Everything tastes as if it was being consumed on a beautiful sun-drenched patio in Lebanon, surrounded by cedar trees and overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.

The dips — hummos (chickpea), baba ghanouj (eggplant) and labneh (yogurt) — vibrate with super-fresh, “authentic” ingredients. This is a kitchen that does not cut corners — its Lebanese chefs obviously make everything from scratch.

The kibbeh — a true Middle Eastern delight with a fried bulgur (cracked wheat) shell enclosing minced onions, finely ground meat (lamb in this case) and regional spices – was superb. But so was everything!

Especially the mashawi (a mixed meat grill, Lebanese style), charmingly described as “one kilogram of meat.” It arrived under a layer of pita bread and hot roasted veggies, as if quick-broiled to add a touch of steam to the meat. Absolutely delicious.

Did I mention the kibbeh nayeh, the raw minced lamb with spices? Steak tartare lovers, get thee to the Sahara!

Fatoush salad (pita chips, parsley, radish, red pepper) inevitably puckers my mouth as it’s usually drenched in lemon. Not this one — it was light, beautifully dressed in a subtle pomegranate molasses sauce.

The Sahara has a couple of illogical head-scratchers. No iced tap water is served, only the bottled stuff at $2.50 each. Only two wines are available, a cheap red and cheap white. Which might be explained by a large non-drinking Muslim clientele … except there’s a large selection of liquor at the bar. Despite the restaurant’s high food standards and the Middle Eastern love of sweets, there was only one unappealing dessert – not even baklava!

The servers were pleasant, but unable to explain Lebanese dishes to the outsider. I wouldn’t have been comfortable ordering without the guidance of our Israeli friend.

The Sahara truly has superb Lebanese-Mediterranean food. But it could do much better in reaching out beyond the Arabic community. This is Canada, after all — where sharing and enjoying and learning about each other’s cultures and cuisines is one of our finest national attributes.