I'm not yearning for Yam, but Sahara is a different story

PUBLISHED: 13:48 30 May 2008 | UPDATED: 15:07 07 September 2010

The last time I was at 7 St John s Wood High Street was in January when I visited the dreadful Yan. No surprise, it closed its doors for good not long afterwards. That site seems cursed by the Wicked Witch of the Wood, as no-one – not even Pizza Express

The last time I was at 7 St John's Wood High Street was in January when I visited the dreadful Yan. No surprise, it closed its doors for good not long afterwards.

That site seems cursed by the Wicked Witch of the Wood, as no-one - not even Pizza Express - seems able to make a go of it. Odd, as it's a perfectly good space on a high street that seems to offer much the same opportunity as any other site. Stalwart Casalinga has managed to sustain a thriving business (and feed regular Paul McCartney) there almost as many years as I've been eating hot dinners.

It was a brave man then who took on this site and spent several weeks transforming the shiny lacquered Yan with its waving cartoon cat into a slice of Lebanon. The result is Sahara. I like nothing more than a table of fine mezze dishes and had been eagerly awaiting its opening. Maybe I should have given them more than a week to bed in, but on my way home from judging a hummus tasting competition (don't ask) I was ready for a taste of the Middle East.

The exterior is very, well cream, really, with two huge metal lanterns. Inside it's all a bit "60-minute makeover" with an off-the-shelf casbah theme. Off-white walls are decorated with large photos of Lebanese attractions, copper kettles and traditional metal lanterns. I assume the floors are where the budget and time-frame ran out as they're in need of some love and care. Furniture is standard dark brown wood and cream leather restaurant issue. Low volume Arabic music completes the atmosphere.

Five smartly clad restaurant staff in black waistcoats, white shirts and burgundy ties beamed at us as we walked in. We were immediately offered drinks - a mango-based fruit cocktail that had the nostalgic flavour of beachside package holidays. A dish of olives and plate of uncut, fresh-looking raw vegetables also appeared.

The menu - also available to take away - offers a range of hot and cold mezze, some pastry-based dishes, salads, fish and meat main courses, and some wraps and sandwiches.

We chose a selection of mezze. An excellent moutabal baba ghanouj - a grilled aubergine puree - had just enough smokey barbecue taste. Kalaj - a toasted pitta bread sandwich filled with haloumi - was also gone in minutes.

As Mrs Smarty Pants, I was about to sanctimoniously report that the two salads we ordered - Sahara and fattoush - were pretty much identical. Grumpy's Sahara salad was listed as "chopped tomato, lettuce, cucumber, parsley, mint, onion, radish, sumac and toasted Lebanese bread with lemon and olive oil dressing". Having just read the take-away menu, I've noticed that the fattoush is described as exactly the same. More fool us for ordering two of the same thing but disappointing that our waiter didn't try to persuade his clearly illiterate or plain stupid guests from making such an idiotic mistake.

Both salads lacked much in the way of chopped parsley and mint, which for me is the main pleasure of a fattoush salad. The "toasted Lebanese bread" was deep-fried pitta pieces and quite unpleasant for it.

Foul moudamas - beans and chick peas stewed to soft tenderness in a soupy sauce - were full of almost meaty flavour but would, perhaps, have done my already full of chickpea guts and my marital life no good at all. Lebanese vermicelli rice and hot Lebanese bread were both good partners.

Last up was a plate of samaka harra - a fillet of (overdone) white fish lurking beneath extremely spicy ratatouille-style vegetables. I was warned that the vegetables would be spicy. They were. I didn't really get past them but the dish wasn't offensive.

By this time we were too full to eat any more. I tried to take home a sample of the desserts but was told that despite being on the take-away menu, the mouhallabieh (milk pudding topped with rosewater syrup and pistachios) and rice pudding, also made with rosewater, weren't up to a journey.

Knefeh (cream topped with semolina served with syrup) was off the menu so all we could really try was the baklava. I'd love to tell you how mouth-meltingly tender it was but after lengthy discussions about how many pieces we wanted, I left it behind.

It's early days for Sahara, which terms its menu as "Healthy Lebanese" and is also halal. While we were there, a stream of customers came in for take-away and a chatty waiter told me they had already been busy. I didn't come away dazzled but I would want to return to try out some of their meat or falafel wraps (which some might term kebabs) and grilled meats. Service was immensely friendly and welcoming and the whole place felt loved.

I confess to eating out more than once a week. Obviously, not everything makes it to this page but some meals - good and bad - deserve a mention. The restaurant trade couldn't be more competitive, especially with the threat of a recession looming, yet service seems to go from bad to worse. It's the one easy area where restaurateurs can stand out with a point of difference. Last week, at a lunch with a girlfriend at Primrose Hill's J restaurant, their manager could not have been ruder and more offhand.

At The Fernhouse on St John's Wood's Abbey Road, our waitress could barely speak English. Every request was met with a blank stare and almost aggressive retort. I don't mind having to mime my eating needs when I'm abroad, but I don't expect to have to do that in NW8.

Restaurant owners need to make sure their waiting staff have at least a basic grasp of English.

Sahara, 7 St John's Wood High Street, NW8 7NG.

Telephone: 020-7722 8555.

Food: three stars:

Service: five stars

Hours: Every day 11am to 11pm.

Cost: £55 for two (mezze only), including service.


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