Cafe Reviews

The Zen of Falafel

Last August, when I heard that Sabuddy, the popular Israeli restaurant in Tempe, had opened a second location in Scottsdale, I took it as a sign of progress (and felt a pang of envy of folks who live and work near the new spot on Shea Boulevard). I'm not a fan of chains, but sometimes they're spawned in the most small-scale, organic way, for the best possible reason: good food. There's nothing wrong with spreading the love, especially when it's homey Middle Eastern food made from scratch.

Over the past several months, though, things took a turn for the worse for owner Daniel Livni, a native of Israel who opened his original Tempe restaurant a little over 10 years ago. I was surprised by the news of Sabuddy's closing its first location because it always seemed so solid, even though Tempe has so many more Middle Eastern restaurants than Scottsdale.

Livni says customers would constantly ask him when he would open a place in Scottsdale. But when he finally did, business never took off. Livni decided not to renew his lease at the original Sabuddy. He says people were offended when Sabuddy left Tempe. But he'd already invested so much in the Scottsdale location that he had to stick with it. "It took all the money I had. It took all the energy that I had," he says.

Soon, Livni started to contemplate the future. He didn't think the effort of keeping the business open was worth it if people weren't going to enjoy it. "I felt that this was really the last moment," he says, admitting that he was ready to accept whatever happened. He reduced prices on the dinner menu by 60 percent.

On a few recent visits to the new Scottsdale Sabuddy, though, I noticed a decent-sized lunch crowd. Livni tells me things have only begun to turn around in the past six weeks or so, mostly due to word of mouth. "Now I can see the light at the end of the tunnel," he says.

I'm crossing my fingers for him. Years ago, I lived just a few blocks away from the old Sabuddy, and usually went there a couple of times a week. My old standby was the shishlik — juicy chunks of grilled, lightly spiced turkey breast served in a pita sandwich or as an entrée platter — and my sweetie was obsessed with the beefy Jerusalem meatballs, smothered in tomato-y sauce with bits of onion.

Thinking about Livni's recent troubles, none of it made any sense. I wondered, could the quality have started to falter?

No way. At Sabuddy, the food is just as good as I'd remembered it. While the Israeli menu has much in common with other types of Middle Eastern restaurants — falafel and pita, and exotically spiced, grilled meats served with long-grain rice — it also includes dishes that reflect the international facets of Jewish culture. Russian immigrants introduced Russian potato salad to Israel, while Austrian Jews brought schnitzel. And along with classic dishes like taboule and baba ganouj, Sabuddy even offers french fries. I would've assumed that was a nod to American tastes, but it's actually true to the way people eat in Jerusalem.

"Israel is crazy for French fries," Livni says. "They eat them with schnitzel, and even falafel."

I passed on the fries but was eager to eat the irresistible Russian potato salad — a tangy mix of tiny cubed potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, carrots, Israeli pickles, and peas, held together with mayo and a hint of lemon juice. This is one of Sabuddy's signature appetizers, and it comes on the side with every sandwich.

Lemon juice also brought out the smoky, garlicky flavor of the grilled eggplant salad, which is actually a thick purée that you scoop up with pita. Sabuddy has good baba ganouj, too, but this eggplant dish impressed me more — I'd be happy to down a whole plate of it. Another cool, creamy way to start the meal was with labne, a Mediterranean-style cream cheese that has a luscious, custard-like texture. Drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with sesame seeds and dried herbs, it was like eating a savory dessert.

Sabuddy's falafel was top-notch — golden and crisp, with a moist, cumin and garlic-scented middle. On the vegetarian plate, falafel was teamed with long-grain rice, chickpeas drizzled in tahini sauce, a spoonful of carrot-onion stew, soft pita with a heap of smooth, fluffy hummus, and a lettuce and tomato garnish.

Similar side dishes came with other entrées. Lamb stew, with chunks of potato and eggplant, contained some of the most tender meat I've eaten in ages — no knives necessary. If I had a Jewish grandmother, I imagine she'd feed me something rich and comforting like that. The schnitzel, a fried, flattened chicken breast coated in a crisp, sesame-flecked breading, was crisp and juicy, with an incredible aroma. Curry-flavored shawarma, with chicken sliced off the rotisserie, also smelled (and tasted) delicious. And grilled, skewered salmon chunks hit the spot on a day when I was craving something light and healthful.

After that, I felt totally justified in ordering a piece of baklava for dessert. I didn't expect much beyond a triangle of honey-drenched phyllo, but the presentation was eye-catching, with neat stripes of spiced honey sauce across the plate. I savored it for a long time, taking minuscule bites as I sipped a demitasse of delicious, brutally dark Turkish coffee. It was just the energizing boost I needed to head back to the office.

Drinking it, I could only hope that Sabuddy would catch a second wind, too.