As I breathed in the scent of roasting eggplant and listened to the faux waterfall trickle onto Sahara Restaurant‘s patio, I hoped that the long journey to cabbie Tariq‘s favorite Turkish food in New York had been worth it.
A kicky breeze stirred the grapevines overhead while women in saris and men in Yankee caps tore into slabs of Turkish flat bread and dipped them into humus and baba ghanoush.
A poster of Brooke Shields – who apparently starred in a movie called Sahara in 1983 – hung behind the host stand, along with a sign from the management asking customers to “Please take responsibility for your children.”
Between its banquet rooms, its second floor and its enormous patio, Sahara claims it can seat 1,000 people. At 2pm last Saturday, most of those chairs were empty.
Though Tariq had wowed me with his wisdom in relation to dealing with hostile passengers, the cabbie had left my co-adventurer and me on our own as far as what to order at Sahara.
We kicked things off with a cold appetizer platter. Sahara’s version is pretty unimpressive (especially when I compared it to Uskudar‘s and Istanbul’s): red and green peppers were where parsley should have been in the tabule, and I could have done without the Russian potato salad altogether.
Still, I liked the lebne (yogurt with walnuts and garlic), stuffed grape leaves (with pine nuts and raisins), and baba ghanoush (not surprising given the eggplant perfume the restaurant wore).
Inspired by the life-sized döner kebab that greets customers at the entrance to the restaurant, I ordered Iskender Kebab – a dressed up version of the classical döner kebab atop fried pita and yogurt and smothered “in a lightly hot tomato sauce.”
Thanks to being “grilled in front of an ingenious tier of charcoal fires,” the lamb was tender and juicy. But it was under-seasoned, as was its tomato sauce, which was nowhere near “lightly hot.”
I kept taking more bites, scooping up spoonfuls of soupy yogurt, searching for pieces of fried pita, hoping they would amp up the flavor of the kebab, but in the end the dish just fell flat. It wasn’t bad – but it wasn’t worth an hour and fifteen minutes on the subway, either.
To mix things up, my co-adventurer chose chicken chops: marinated boneless chicken thighs “grilled to perfection.”
Both the lemon and dried rosemary-infused chicken and the buttery rice pilaf on his plate left my Iskender kebab in the dust. The roasted green pepper garnish made us both sweat. Definitely a winner.
The brown top pudding we picked for dessert made me think back again to Istanbul, where cabbie Eduard Zavlanov had steered me to back in November, because it couldn’t compare: where Istanbul’s rich rendition had a cinnamon back beat, Sahara’s just tasted like the milk pudding it was.
After spending $36 on a relatively disappointing meal, I wondered whether I should even bother trudging up Coney Island Avenue to Tariq’s favorite grocery store. I’m really glad I did.
At Eastern Fruit & Vegetable, I found tahini from Syria, blue corn tortillas from Mexico, mineral water from Georgia (the former Soviet republic, not the southern state), sour cherry juice from Slovenia, dried apricots from Izmir (Turkey), Punjabi biscuits, Egyptian mango juice, Azerbaijani pomegranate juice, protected designation of origin feta cheese from Greece – and there were thousands of other treasures I probably missed.
Besides all of this, the produce – which caters to Latin, Asian and Jewish palates – is cheap and beautiful. No wonder Tariq’s wife goes there when she’s searching for ingredients to make achar (the Indian pickles the cabbie loves).
New York is full of we-are-the-world grocery stores, but Eastern Fruit, which takes up almost an entire block in Midwood, Brooklyn, is one of the more outstanding examples. It was only fitting that Tariq, the savvy traveler from Kashmir who’s lived on three continents, was the one who led me there.
Eastern Fruit & Vegetable, Inc.
1234 Coney Island Avenue – Midwood, Brooklyn
Tel. (718) 338-3747