It's not often you're challenged by your plate and palate to that extent in Dallas because adventures in eating here are limited. The territory is mostly familiar: Dallas is as great a desert of diversity in dining as it is in the other arts. You might be glad to know I was served the rest of the suckling pig, along with the tail and trotters, by the Sardinian chef who was visiting Pomodoro, and that the pork, as well as the other regional specialties we were served, were delicious. It's fun and worthwhile to explore.
Still, speaking of deserts, if you're looking for something different to eat, you ought to check out Sahara, Dallas' only Persian restaurant. Never mind that the Sahara itself is actually in Saudi Arabia, a country that doesn't even share a language with Iran. The name could just mean that Dallas can seem like a dining desert, in which case a better name for this place would be "Oasis." The little cafe-cum-grocery is a real find if you like Middle Eastern food; Persian food turns out to be similar, but slightly different from the Lebanese-Syrian dishes we're accustomed to.
Anthony Afsari opened Sahara with his partner Mohamad Javidnia nearly two years ago. After living in Dallas for 17 years, Afsari decided that he was "not really a 9-to-5 guy" and jumped from a career in electrical engineering to the restaurant business. Javidnia had a restaurant in Dallas before. Things are going so well they're thinking about expanding--not just the menu, to include a wider range of dishes (including some seafood), but possibly to a second location.
The market next door sells the ingredients for everything you need to make any of the dishes served in the restaurant, in case you want to take up Persian cooking, as well as a selection of pastries you can buy and take back into the restaurant to eat with your Persian tea while you watch Persian music videos. Right now, the menu centers on kabobs and stews of chicken, beef, lamb, and vegetables.
Persian food is highly seasoned, but it's not hot, just exotic. The kabobs are grilled, the stews are boiled, and both are served over rice, so most of this food is just what the American doctors have ordered: low fat, high carbohydrate. Each meat has its own marinade, with different proportions of onion juice, saffron, fresh garlic, and salt providing taste and tenderness.
Before the meal we ordered starters: noon paneer and sabzi, soft pita bread to wrap around feta cheese, scallions, parsley, and mint leaves, the combination of pungent greens also accenting the garlicky hummus we spread on the hot bread quarters. Tabouli was heavy on the parsley, more saladlike than the starchy variety common around here, but perhaps it had been prepared for the lunch crowd. The chopped parsley seemed a little tired.
We were disappointed that the kitchen had sold out of lamb shank, a stew served with lima beans and rice, but we were happy with the kabobs, especially the Cornish hen, grilled until the skin was crispy but the white meat still moist. Lamb chunks, marinated in onion juice, were tender and their sweet fragrance married well with perfumey basmati rice, a combination of aromas as classic in Eastern cuisine as duck and orange is in ours. Halves of grilled tomatoes garnished the plate, and entrees come with more fresh green vegetables so the whole process of eating was building different variations with the same flavor blocks--some hen with some parsley and mint, a little lamb with some feta wrapped in pita, a bite of grilled beef (we preferred the tenderloin to the regular shish kebab) with parsley and scallions. It's a delicious way to eat and amusing, too, causing you to really notice how one flavor or texture enhances another. Here's inviting you to explore a little more.
--Mary Brown Malouf
Sahara International Foodmart and Restaurant, 5441 Alpha at Montfort, 788-1898. Open Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, noon-10 p.m.
Noon Paneer, Sabzi $1.95
Cornish-Hen Kabob $7.95
Lamb Kabob $6.95