Sahara Cafe & Restaurant
REVIEW: 39 Courtenay Place Ph: 385 6362
Fully licensed & BYO
Restaurant open seven days 5.30-10pm; takeaway 10am-till late
Price range of mains: $20-$25.50
Food: 3.5/5 Service: 3/5 Ambience: 3/5 Wine list: 2.5/5 Cost: $78 for two (excluding wine).
One day somebody in Wellington should open a real old-school Turkish cafe.
Beneath naked lightbulbs, a dusty, hand-coloured photo of Kemal Ataturk and a blurry television tuned to the soccer, we would hope to find an all-male clientele, preferably unshaven and aged 70 or over. Uniformly clad in cloth caps and blue serge suits with no ties, they will play cards beneath a rising cloud of hideously strong tobacco, while loudly sucking thimble-sized glasses of tea through fragments of sugar cube wedged between the gaps in their gold teeth.
In the meantime, Wellington has a dozen or so like the Sahara Cafe. As found in Aegean tourist towns like Bodrum, these conform more to the tourist's conception of a proper Turkish cafe.
In other words, it's Ali Baba's cave: tented ceiling, kilim-backed banquettes, exposed brick walls, conversation nook, wrought iron furniture from the 1980s, Turkish brothel lampshades and belly-dancing music.
Despite the best efforts of the Womad bicycle-clip brigade to win me over to the genre, loud belly-dancing music still tempts me to claim part of my restaurant bill on ACC.
It triggers post-traumatic stress disorder, you see, arising from a bus trip I once took across the plains and into the freezing, wolf-infested mountains of Eastern Turkey. For two days solid this music blasted repetitively at full volume, and while I curled up into my seat and went quietly mad, my mustachioed co-passengers sat swaying and shaking their burly shoulders, closing their eyes and smiling as they conjured visions of wobbly, busty bliss.
Much to my surprise, half way through our meal at the Sahara, I found an unlikely ally in the doner kebab chef. Perhaps he'd noticed my grimaces, but for whatever reason, he threw down his carving knife, picked up the remote control and killed the music mid-track. Flicking over to syrupy, innocuous Middle Eastern pop, he lowered the volume and for the remainder of our dinner the playlist assumed its deserving status as acoustic wallpaper.
Like the decor, the menu here seems to have changed little in the decade or so this cafe has been in business.
With 29 mains, it's much longer than need be, particularly as a basic repertoire is endlessly reshuffled to create the illusion of choice. For regardless of what you order, you still seem to end up with a plate of grilled meat, shredded lettuce, tabouli, hummus and pita bread.
While the majority of mains have Arabic-sounding names, many employ mayonnaise, cream sauces and those twin abominations to the Prophet - ham and wine.
Sirloin steak and lamb shanks don't exactly have the ring of a muezzin's tower either, and for the life of me, I can't think why I'd go to a Middle Eastern restaurant to eat creamy chicken fettuccini. (For that matter, I can't think why I'd go anywhere to eat creamy chicken fettuccini.)
Yet against these seemingly insurmountable odds, we managed to enjoy our meal.
Kebabs they do know about here and we did very much enjoy the succulent Lamb Tika, even if our own Europeanised lamb tastes are for medium-rare, not medium.
Accompanying hummus was deliciously silky smooth and unctuous, while the tabouli was heavy on the parsley and light on the cracked wheat, just as it ought to be.
About a year ago the Sahara changed from Syrian hands into Iraqi ownership, and blow me if the two dishes which most made my evening weren't, our Assyrian waitron later told me, of Iraqi origin.
The first, Simsemiya, was a crisp slice of confectionery we enjoyed for dessert, along with lovely fresh baklava.
The other, a meze called Sharkasih, is deliciously obscure, as a Google search under this spelling throws up nothing.
It's cooked chicken breast, ground with water to a creamy paste with walnuts and tahini, then sprinkled with yummy sour sumac and a soupcon of mild chilli, for the sake of which I might even return to the Sahara and suffer bunching my shoulders and wiggling my hips.
ONE THING YOU SHOULD TRY
Made festive with a fine lattice work of chocolate, Simsemiya Slice is well worth a try. Comprising ground pistachio, golden syrup and ground sesame seed, it's a crunchy delight.
- The Dominion Post