To Skewer, With Love

Wine & Kebab seems to be in the right place at the right time, delivering tempting, low-cost ethnic meals in a high-rent district. It should flourish.

Saba's Mediterranean Cuisine, 4747 East Bell, Phoenix, 493-4831. Hours: Lunch, Monday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Lunch and Dinner, Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 7 p.m.

Despite being buried in a sprawling shopping center at the busy southwest corner of Tatum and Bell, Saba's seems to have been discovered by the neighborhood.

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Saba's Mediterranean Cuisine

4747 E. Bell Road
Phoenix, AZ 85032

Category: Restaurant > Greek

Region: North Phoenix

It's not surprising that locals have taken to it--it's a friendly family operation with a welcoming feel. The narrow room is decked out with posters of Jerusalem, embroidered Arabic verses surrounded by flags of the region and a small retail shelf stocked with Middle Eastern goods. You can even pick up a copy of the Jerusalem Post.

But it's not the decor or reading matter that's attracting customers. It's the food--especially the appetizers. Saba's has some of the best in town.

You can get a good sampling of them on the appetizer combo platter. Baba ghanouj is notable for its smoky, roasted-eggplant aroma, a scent that excites me as much as Chanel No. 5. Hummus and falafel are also well-crafted, the latter particularly fresh, moist and crunchy. Rice-stuffed dolmeh sports a tangy lemon bite. You also get to munch on three varieties of olives and feta cheese.

Fattouch, a Lebanese bread salad, also shifts your taste buds into high gear. Bits of toasted pita bread are tossed with lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, parsley and scallions, in an invigorating oil-and-lemon dressing.

But the kitchen really reaches the heights with the tabbouleh and kibbe mishewy starters. For many years, we had Lebanese neighbors, victims of the civil war who fled here to escape the fighting. The wife made tabbouleh--a blend of parsley and cracked wheat, seasoned with onion, mint, oil and lemon--that was an absolute knockout. Saba's lip-smacking version is in the same league. It arrives in a huge bowl, plenty for four to share, with fresh pita bread. I could have made a meal of it.

But then I would have missed the kibbe mishewy, an extraordinarily flavorful dish that transported me back to the Middle East faster than a magic carpet. It's fashioned from ground meat, cracked wheat, onion, pine nuts and a sprinkling of cinnamon. The ingredients are rolled into a ball, then fried. You get two to an order, and you won't want to share.

Maybe the wonderful appetizers raised my expectations beyond a reasonable level. But I didn't think the main dishes reached quite the same heights. They're good, but not good enough to make me quiver with excitement.

The Sultani kebab combo--a skewer each of marinated steak and ground beef--suffered from overcooking. Although skillfully seasoned, the steak wasn't as tender as it ought to have been, and the ground beef wasn't as moist. Lamb kebab was too gristly, and also spent too much time in the broiler.

Chicken dishes fared better. Joojeh kebab features skinless, boneless, marinated poultry, expertly grilled. Shawarma chicken uses a lemon-and-garlic marinade to zip up strips of chicken breast. Baked prawns make another good alternative, although this shrimp dish smacks more of Greece than the Middle East. (Muslims, like Jews, are not permitted to eat shellfish.) The five shrimp, coated with a lovely tomato-wine sauce festooned with feta cheese, may not pass every religious test. But they do pass the taste test.

Two cavils. Neither the soup nor the salad that accompanies dinner is worth your dining attention. And, for some reason, the kitchen is stingy with rice, which didn't do much for either my sense of authenticity or my growling belly.

Stick around for dessert. Both the sweet, syrupy baklava and the burma, a confection made from shredded phyllo dough and walnuts, end the meal on a pleasant note. So does the minty Middle Eastern tea.

Saba's appetizers indicate that someone in the kitchen possesses real culinary skill. Let's hope the main dishes will soon receive that same level of attention. If they do, Saba's may become more than a welcome new neighborhood ethnic spot--it could be a Valley dining destination, as well.

Wine & Kebab:
Hummus and eggplant
$3.95
Koobideh kebab
6.95
Cornish hen kebab
8.45
Barg kebab
9.45

Saba's Mediterranean
Kibbe mishewy
$3.25
Tabbouleh
3.75
Joojeh kebab
7.95
Baked prawns
10.75

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