Staying cool in Israel: not an easy feat. Staying cool in Cleveland Park, Israeli style? Just got a whole lot easier.
Meet Sababa—meaning “cool” in local parlance (more on that later)—a daring, modern Israeli restaurant as welcoming as any Jewish grandmother, though just a touch spicier.
Sababa is the brainchild of renowned restaurateur Ashok Bajaj, founder and owner of Knightsbridge Restaurant Group. Hailing from New Delhi, Bajaj has opened acclaimed spots across the DMV, including Rasika, The Oval Room, now-closed Ardeo+Bardeo and most recently, Bindaas. Bindaas sits right next to Sababa, an Indian street-food restaurant that shares space, chefs and sensibility with Sababa.
In fact, Bindaas was in some ways inspiration for Sababa. Both are casual, relaxed and communal, and intertwine fiery flavors with tradition. Bindaas, too, means “cool”—but in Hindi.
Bajaj has opened restaurants that span the culinary globe. When pursuing this latest venture, he wanted to do something unique, yet that’d complement its twin next door. Just as India is diverse and multicultural, almost impossible to capture on a singular menu, so, too, is Israel. And thus Sababa was born.
“Israeli food is really so many things,” Bajaj said, “If you ask Israelis, they say it’s everything. It draws influences from every place. It’s almost like asking what American food is.” Israeli food is inspired not only by the Middle East, but also by more far-flung locales like Turkey, North Africa and Eastern Europe.
Israeli cuisine is certainly experiencing an explosion in popularity, whether in restaurants (Shaya, Zahav), films (In Search of Israeli Cuisine) or research and conferences (like the one last fall at American University). Bajaj took note of this movement and sought to bring these flavors and trends to DC.
Bajaj made a trip to Israel a central part of his research to best represent the flavors of the country. For the trip, he talked to famed DC author and Jewish food maven Joan Nathan, as well as Roger Sherman, the filmmaker who directed In Search of Israeli Cuisine, a documentary that echoes similar sentiment about Israeli food. Bajaj worked closely with culinary guides and visited a dizzying array of markets, restaurants, homes and more.
In addition to doing his homework with the travels, he hired chef Ryan Moore, whose DC pedigree includes minibar, Zaytinya, Rogue 24 and Ris. Plus, his family has Egyptian roots, and he’s spent significant time living and traveling in the Middle East.
Opening an Israeli restaurant was a “beautiful culmination of bringing diverse flavors together from all over the world,” including Egypt, says Moore. That’s why the served-from-a-streetcart national dish of kushari—a hearty plateful of lentils, rice and noodles topped with fried onions and zesty tomato sauce—makes its way onto the menu.
Of course, there’s shakshuka and tagine as well, along with flavorful salatim (rotating sharable bowls of seasonal produce, dips and salads), modern-yet-traditional small plates like roasted halloumi and a bespoke daily hummus. On the afternoon we spoke, it was shredded lamb that was cured, smoked and cooked in schmaltz and draped over small-batch blended-to-order hummus. Chef Moore has endeavored to become part of the local neighborhood and DC Jewish community, going so far as to work with Mark Furstenberg on crafting the pitas—all baked to order.
Pairing with these dishes are cocktails that represent flavors of the region. They have cheeky names like Ptolemy’s Lighthouse, Phoenician Frappé and Halva World Away, and involve ingredients like rosehip, sorghum and sumac. Max Hill, the beverage director, spent extensive time ensuring that the drinks included flavors that also play roles in the food.
The restaurant’s interior recalls the vibrant seaside of Tel Aviv, and the entryway lounge is set up with communal tables and a Bedouin-style tent.
As far as the name goes, Sababa was almost not as cool as its neighbor. It was originally going to be called Maya, which comes from mayim (water). But every time Bajaj walked into a shop or market in Israel, “every other word was sababa. It just rolls off the tongue; it really sounds good,” he said. What Bajaj loves is that “bindaas” means the same in Hindi and is similarly tossed around on the streets of Mumbai. Even more meaningful is that “sababa” comes from Arabic and has become part of the Modern Hebrew lexicon. Given its casual, street-smart, yet multicultural, style, the name was surely meant to be.
Sababa, 202-244-6750, 3311 Connecticut Avenue NW, Washington, DC, Monday–Thursday 5 pm–10 pm, Friday–Saturday 5 pm–11 pm, Sunday 11 am–3 pm and 5 pm–11 pm. Not kosher.
Top photo: Sababa’s salatim spread (All photos: Greg Powers)