Searching for a gem of an ethnic restaurant in an out-of-the-way locale can be a vicious competition among adventure-seeking diners who proudly call themselves foodies. Points are unofficially racked up by finding the most delicious, novel or authentic dish in the most unlikely place. So when CityBeat sent me to West Chester for Moroccan food at Sahara, my internal foodie's ears perked up.
Sahara comes complete with the desolate suburban strip mall, also home to a salon, frame shop and liquor store. Step inside, and you'll find an atmospheric oasis of the magic-carpet-ride variety. Lavish tapestries, ornate ceramic and wooden handicraft, an oversized faux crystal chandelier and plush carpets border on the ridiculous inside the small box of a dining room — but it's fun. Sprawl out on cushions by an octagonal floor table, and you'll feel like the sultan of West Chester, if you don't forget West Chester altogether.
Moroccan cuisine fuses Arab, Andalusian and Jewish influences. A sensual experience, the typical Moroccan table is laden with slow-cooked meats and stews, warm breads, aromatic herbs and spices, sweet and savory pastries, nuts and dried fruits, and Morocco's national dish, steamed semolina grains — better known as couscous. Sahara's menu offers a basic introduction to this experience, featuring several preparations of lamb and chicken, a few beef options, vegetarian salads and stews and occasional seafood specials.
Ask your server for a lesson in Moroccan table etiquette if you want to dine in the traditional fashion, using fingers and bread as utensils. Be sure to use the thumb and first three fingers of your right hand — two fingers signify hatred, and four mean gluttony.
Sahara is only open on the weekends, and reservations probably are unnecessary but apprecitated. My parents and I make reservations for five o'clock on a Friday, and after some quality family bonding in rush hour traffic, we arrive a few minutes late.
"You must be the reservations!" says the lone server, a young, pony-tailed blonde in a flowing turquoise dress. This sort of greeting makes me nervous, but it's light, without a hint of desperation. "Sit wherever you like: We reserved the whole place for you!"
My mom and I streamline to a floor table and practice leisurely sultaness poses while my father, eyeing a nearby sofa, squirms in silence. Our meal begins with pita bread and olive oil laced with cilantro and hot peppers. We share a bowl of Hahira ($2.95), hot tomato soup flavored with lamb and turmeric, and swimming with occasional capellini noodles, lentils and chickpeas.
We also try two "salads" — Fez ($3.95), diced green peppers sautéed with tomatoes; and Za'louq ($4.50), roasted eggplant stewed in tomatoes, cumin, cilantro, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice. I say "salads" because they're really more like sauces served at room temperature, best eaten on a triangle of pita. Whatever they are, they receive nods of approval, if not emphatic moans of pleasure.
The moaning begins with Chicken Bastilla ($15.95), a sweet and savory pastry pie of tender chicken, basking in cinnamon and saffron, stacked with almonds and hard-boiled eggs between flaky layers of phyllo. I actually have to remind my mom not to spoil her appetite before the rest of the food arrives. If you have any self-control, share a bastilla between your appetizers and entrées: It's too sinful for one person to eat alone and too sublime not to have your undivided attention.
Of our main courses, our favorite is Lamb Tagine ($15.95), a hearty stew accompanied by couscous and chunky carrots, potatoes and zucchini in vegetable broth. The lamb is roasted, then braised in a conical earthenware pot called a tagine, with hard-boiled eggs, almonds and prunes.
We also try a Combo Kebab ($12.95), de-skewered lamb and kefta, or ground beef, resting on a no-nonsense rice pilaf with mushrooms. My favorite of the two is the kefta, which better absorbs the marinade of hot pepper, paprika, cilantro, cumin and garlic.
Of everything we try, the only thing we don't like is the vegetarian dish boasted on the menu as "the Chef's specialty dish." Called Sahara ($12.95), it's a blend of roasted eggplant, tomatoes, potatoes and "the Chef's special sauce," baked under a hardened layer of ... cheddar cheese? Eggplant parmesan is one of my favorite dishes, but I'd never consider substituting cheddar for parmesan, and I'm fairly certain cheddar isn't a regular ingredient in Moroccan cooking.
After our meal the chef sends out complimentary finger-shaped honey and almond pastries, similar to baklava. I suspect this is to prevent us from ordering something she hasn't prepared that evening, which I think is a fine tactic for a restaurant that seems to be making the usual struggle through it's first year of spotty business. As we sip the last of our mint tea ($3) from delicate, stenciled glasses, our server presents a pitcher of orange-blossom scented water for our hands and hair.
"Do men do this, too?" my father asks hesitantly, as she sprinkles the water on his hands and assures him it's a gender-neutral custom.
While I'm not sure Sahara is the diamond in the rough every foodie dreams of, it definitely scores a few points, and I hope the place makes it. Even if just for the sake of that heavenly Chicken Bastilla. ©
Go: 9100 Cox Road, West Chester
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday
Prices:Reasonable to moderate
Payment: All major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Salads, hummus and stews, pastries or couscous with veggies or chicken