When it comes to corridors of ethnic dining, South Limestone near the University of Kentucky has an abundance of riches. Asian, Indian, Latin American, African, you name it. And now, since the opening of Sarah Mediterranean Grill, there are two Mediterranean (often code for Middle Eastern) spots to inexpensively satisfy the carving for garlic sauce, grilled meat, savory vegetarian appetizers and hot mint tea that is steeped to order.
From the spit at Sarah, you can find big entrée plates of ground steak that has been patted on skewers, chunks of spicy lamb, and shawarma, slivers of chicken and beef. The chicken is more tender and juicy than the other meats. All are served with delicate yellow long-grain rice, plus a choice of an "Arabic" salad made of a sweet cucumber and tomato dice in a tangy vinaigrette, hummus or french fries that are great for dipping in rich garlic sauce that is far more assertive than an understated aioli. For a balanced meal, get the salad; for mouthfeel, order the fries.
Even though Sarah bills itself as a grill, it is the appetizers, straight from the traditions of the Jordanian kitchen, that are the knockout.
Take, for example, musabbaha. In contrast to the classic puréed hummus, this "dip" is made with chickpeas that are left whole. I think Sarah is the only restaurant in town that serves it. The enormous dish is full of garbanzos bathed in a snow-white sauce of tahini (ground sesame paste) drizzled with golden olive oil. You will detect subtle citrus, and, of course, a generous, but not overpowering, dose of garlic. The musabbaha is sprinkled with a fabulous mince of jalapeño and garlic. Ladle a few spoonfuls on your plate and then nosh, mopping up the extra sauce with fine, char-blistered pita bread that is really closer to naan.
Ask for foul modammas, and you will be served the best fava beans in town. This warm starter is actually a medley of legumes, including more garbanzos and also brown beans. The stew's texture is velvety smooth, and the beans melt in your mouth. It is salty and garlicky, lemony and delicious, and topped with the same spicy mince as the musabbaha. Again, grab some bread — you will have plenty because it seems to come often and with everything — and wipe your plate clean.
The baba ghanouj also is outstanding: chunky and rustic, slightly smoky and silky with yellow olive oil. It, too, has just the right amount of chili peppers and garlic.
Finally, there is dessert. Of course, baklava in on the menu, but you ought to sample kunava when they have it. This pastry, too, I have seen only at Sarah. It's made of butter and mild cheeses, like ricotta, so it's extremely moist, as well as shredded phyllo dough to make it both dense and textured. Its sweetness comes from a saturation of simple syrup. All the components belie the presentation, however. Instead of beige pastry throughout, the top cheese layer has been colored an electric orange and dusted with a pale green smattering of chopped pistachio nuts. The result is oddly beautiful.
Sarah, like many family-owned and -operated restaurants, is friendly and informal. Don't expect rehearsed timing or choreographed service. The atmosphere is sparse, but the warmth and pride in the cuisine come through. Here in the South we love our breads, beans and sweets, and that is what you get, as seen through a Mediterranean lens, at Sarah.
Sarah Mediterranean Grill
Address: 319-A S. Limestone
Phone: (859) 309-0753
Hours: 11 a.m.- 8 p.m. Mon.-Fri., noon-8 p.m. Sat., noon-6 p.m. Sun.
Other: Street parking. Vegetarian options. Family-friendly. Appetizers, soups and salads $2.49-$8.99; entrees and platters $9.99-$29.99; sides $.75-$1.99; desserts $1.99-$2.99.
Wendy Miller is a Lexington-based food and spirits writer and critic.