Michigan City, IN has a fairly limited amount of non-chain dining options, but a distinct exception is Sahara, which opened just as I was moving away from Northwest Indiana. I’ve always wanted to try it, so when I saw a Groupon for the Lebanese restaurant, I snapped it up to use on my next visit. As I’ve said before, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisine isn’t always my favorite, but I had a completely wonderful meal here.
My sister and I visited on a warm Tuesday night and I was pleasantly surprised to see the dining room about half full early in the evening. Sahara has a large dining room that opens up into an indoor-outdoor setting by opening a garage-style rolling door in the nice weather. Since it was sprinkling, we opted to sit inside rather than on the patio, and I absolutely loved the interior of the restaurant. Low benches span the perimeter of the dining room, which is a bold mix of sandblasted brick, punched tin ceilings and vivid orange plaster. Just enough bold geometric wall art paired with abundant natural light absolutely hits the mark for fun but not gaudy Mediterranean feel.
As usual, I wanted to try everything, so we ordered from across the menu. For dinner was a chicken tawook (kebab) from the Entree menu and spanakopita from the mezza hot menu. The chicken tawook included two skewers of charred chicken and one skewer of grilled vegetables on a bed of rice, fairly standard Mediterranean fare.
Lately, when eating this kind of food, I’ve been struck by the consistency of chicken in flavor from place to place, but by the drastic variation in the rice. The rice under this particular kebab was completely wonderful-well seasoned but not too salty. Within the first minute of the dish arriving, the table looked like I had been eating the rice with both hands after a starvation diet. The chicken itself was just a tiny bit on the bland side for me, but application of the tzatziki served alongside made it just perfect.
I think my sister and both agreed that the spanakopita was the unexpected showstopper of the meal. We ordered it mostly to provide some semblance of vegetable to the meal, but wound up fighting over each bite. The phyllo was thick but crisp and the spinach filling was perfectly subtle, but what made it so perfect was the tomato cream ladled over the top. I just could not stop eating this dish. Normally, when two women share a dish, we fall all over ourselves insisting that the other finish the last bite. Not this time- in fact there was a palpable race for each bite. If you visit Sahara, you have to order this dish-even if it’s for dessert!
To finish the meal, we split a plate of “Sahara’s Famous Dates.” I’m a huge fan of candied dates but I was unsure whether these, stuffed with feta and served atop a pomegranate sauce, would be overly fussy. The pomegranate sauce tasted more like a very tart balasamic reduction with just a hint of sweet fruit flavor, which married perfectly with the slight savory character of feta. These dates were on the menu as mezza cold (sort of a small plate appetizer), but I thought they finished the meal more perfectly than would a piece of chocolate cake or something more obvious.
The meal, with soft drinks, cost just $30 and we were both happily full at the conclusion. An option I’d love to try is the Mezza sampler- 4 hot and 4 cold mezzas, which are like small tapas-style dishes, for $20 per person. As our two favorite dishes we tried (dates and spanakopita) were from the mezza menu and were quite generously sized, I think this would be a great option for adventurous eaters.
I was completely thrilled to finally try Sahara and find it to be so far above my expectations. I would return in a heartbeat but it will be a challenge to force myself to explore the menu, as my meal on my first visit was so perfectly sublime.