"Sababa" means "cool" in Hebrew, owner Sagi Rochman tells us, and that's the vibe he went for at Sababa Restaurant & Lounge. We can believe it. The entire layout begs for group gatherings and socializing. Inside a wrap-around glowing bar sits in the center of any potential hubbub, reminding me of a tamer nightclub scene. Outside, a shielded and well-heated patio gives a clear view of the plaza outside but presents the comfort of privacy when dining. Tucked away in Marketplace Long Beach, the restaurant seems a hidden gem that becomes a favorite once found. We were curious about the food since internet searches resulted in a categorization of Israeli/Mediterranean, and even a perusal of the online menu made us cock our heads; it seemed simple but not, all at the same time. Our first exposure to the restaurant was actually via invitation. Because we had not ventured much into Long Beach's restaurant scene, our curiosity got the best of us and we came in on a Friday night by media invitation to see what made this menu (curated by consulting chef Eric Greenspan) unique.
With a practically full bar and a wide assortment of drinks on the menu, Sababa has plenty of reasons to try to live up to its namesake. Though our options seemed endless (cocktails, wines, and beers), we opted just for two drinks that night - the Sababa Lemonade ($9.50 - Jameson, triple sec, fresh muddled lemons, topped with lemonade) and Oranje Hef ($9.50 - Ketel One Oranje, Hefeweizen, lime juice, agave nectar). If you know me, I tend to grab items that have the restaurant's name in the description just to see why they would slap their brand onto it. With every order, I always hope that the reasoning was out of pride and not to liven up a dish's title. In this case, the item was a drink, and the Sababa Lemonade was definitely described as just being "topped" with lemonade for a reason. This short glass was a bit strong. I almost wish there was more of that citrusy goodness I expect out of a lemonade. As for the Oranje Hef, what an interesting combination they have put together. Duc enjoyed this one but did mention that some may find it too tart from the lime juice. I'd have to agree.
So what makes Sababa "cool"? We had a long list of appetizers to browse through, and the entire Starters side encompassed a wide variety of cuisines. Because they were noted as a Mediterranean restaurant, I wanted to see how well they would handle traditional dishes. However, Sagi did suggest to us the tartar and nachos because they were certainly done with the same technique as their names' origin called for but consisted of different ingredients. First thing to rave about were their Seasoned French Fries ($6 - with harissa ketchup and lemon artichoke aioli). If you mess up fries at a restaurant, you need to go back to basics. At Sababa, however, the fries were a success. Perfectly crispy on the outside with the right amount of softness on the inside, these shoestring starch embodied what I would call the right kind of fry. By the way, harissa ketchup is a masterpiece. I also ordered their Falafel ($7.50 - sliced tomatoes, balsamic drizzle, and tahini dip) to see how this staple would hold up on a sit-down restaurant scale. The flavors were all there quite wonderfully but we both thought them to be drier than desired.
Perhaps we made the wrong choices though because Sagi's own suggestions of the Tuna Tartar ($12 - sashimi grade tuna, fresh lemon juice, orange juice, avocado, olive oil, sesame seeds, balsamic vinegar, and housemade potato chips) and Mediterranean Nachos ($9.50 - pita chips, goat cheese, fresh spinach, roasted red bell peppers, kalamata olives, hummus, and tahini vinaigrette) were our favorites from the starters. When he told us that Sababa does food a little differently, we did not expect to see the ingredients used in the ways they were. Their tuna tartar did not have the signature sesame oil and soy sauce flavors with it because, as he points out, those weren't available ingredients in Israelian cuisine. What it did have was playful citrus notes, and I found myself enjoying this almost more than the traditional tartar I've been used to. The pieces also remained separate enough to have the fish shine through. Duc really enjoyed the Mediterranean nachos because they were messy (Sagi said we weren't allowed to use forks with this one, hah), savory, and all goodness. I loved the interpretation of nachos as well! The appetizer itself seemed like a full meal though so if you are a small-meals-eater, keep that in mind.
Positive notes were found online about their Shakshuka ($12 - zucchini, tomatoes, roasted red bell peppers, tomato sauce, poached eggs, and bread), a seemingly simple home-styled dish common to their cuisine. However, the beauty of having poached eggs swimming in a vat of tomato sauce is that someone will assuredly break the yolk and let the runniness taint the sauce. The dish was executed well but not as good as other similar dishes we've had from other places. The next entree was their highly recommended Moroccan Salmon ($19 - 8oz pan seared salmon, Moroccan spices, and basmati rice), a beast of a serving for its price point and an aromatic spiced display. The salmon came away easily with my fork, and the flavors married together well under the gnashing of my teeth.
As we watched their aerialist (comes every 2nd and 4th Friday), we debated on whether or not we could legitimately roll home. Despite being fit to burst, we could not ignore dessert because how else would we fully taste a restaurant without trying every type of food available? We had managed to save a bit of room in our stomachs. Our choice? Apple Baklava ($7 - apples, raisins, walnuts, cinnamon, honey, and phyllo dough) was the best of both worlds, holding on to older sets/traditions/customers by including baklava, while speaking to America via apple pie-like filling! Overall, what a great meal and certainly one place that I will have to come back to again and regularly.
Photography by Duc Duong. More photos available on Facebook here.