There’s something happening in Cleveland Park. The Northwest neighborhood has been hit with several high-profile closings in recent years, most notably Ripple and Palena. But there’s a bright flame of hope, thanks to Sababa, the latest venture from serial restaurateur Ashok Bajaj, who owns Rasika, Bibiana, the Oval Room and others. It takes over the space once occupied by Bajaj’s Ardeo + Bardeo—another longtime institution that was snuffed out earlier this year—while taking its cues from stateside standard-bearers of modern Israeli cuisine, like Zahav in Philadelphia and Shaya in New Orleans.
Sababa means “cool” in Hebrew, and the establishment lives up to its name. (Fun fact: Bajaj’s adjacent concept, Indian street-food eatery Bindaas, takes its moniker from the Hindi word for “cool.”) There’s a small lounge at the front, where you’ll likely find yourself waiting if you don’t have a reservation—the restaurant has quickly become a hot spot in the District. Fairy lights are strung over the 12-seat bar, which blends into the 90-person dining room decorated with carved wooden screens, palm fronds, lanterns and white canvas draped from the ceiling. It’s as if you’ve entered a Bedouin tent. The golden glow of naked filament bulbs hanging from the ceiling infuses the room with hazy warmth.
The kitchen is presided over by executive chef Ryan Moore, a veteran of Minibar, Rogue 24 and Bistro Provence. This job is somewhat a return to his roots; his stepmother is Egyptian, and he spent time working in Dubai.
Instead of a bread basket, a bowl of housemade pickles arrives to crunch on as you peruse the menu. While you’re weighing your options, consider a cocktail. The Zephyr Breeze is rich with pomegranate and fortified with Cotton & Reed rum, while the ginny Phoenician Frappé has an anise undertone due to the use of arak.
Salatim—a collection of five dips and spreads, including thicker-than-Greek-yogurt labneh enriched with garlic and sweet, earthy beetroot relish—is a must. The concoctions arrive with warm-from-the-oven pita brushed with olive oil and spangled with za’atar spice. The rounds are also the perfect accompaniment for the supersmooth hummus with a groove full of extra-virgin olive oil. Ask about the special hummus of the day, such as one with threads of roasted goat.
The remainder of the choices are divided into small and large plates, and kebabs. The latter are well-seasoned, grill-fired and pleasantly charred. Think chicken thighs with a hit of harissa and juicy cubes of steak accented with sumac and onion. Oversize entrees should be shared by at least two guests. The standout is the generous lamb shank braised in schmaltz (clarified fowl fat) and served on shredded cabbage brightened with orange juice and sweetened with dates. The meat takes the barest nudge to fall off the bone and into a waiting piece of pita, where you can dress it up with your choice of salatim or hummus.
Devote some time to the middle ground of small plates since they boast big flavors. Caramelized cauliflower and a few sweet golden raisins sit in harissa tahini for a touch of spice. Israeli salad is a surprise hit: It’s light and bright, and full of mango and golden beets. Pistachios and pomegranate seeds add savory crunch and tart pop, respectively, to grilled eggplant, where the char is the star. Halloumi cheese is roasted then paired with honey, dates and charred lemon. They work together like a Middle Eastern marmalade. And the ta’ameya are essentially fava bean falafels. The puckish creations are best when you squeeze on the attending lemon to add acid to their savory profile.
There are three desserts. The best of the bunch is mahalabia. The traditional Iranian milk custard comes topped off with strawberries, strawberry-rose syrup and pistachio brittle. It’s like a decadent Dannon. Not exactly the kind of cool confection you’d expect to enjoy in Cleveland Park, but that’s exactly the point.
3311 Connecticut Ave. NW
Small plates, $10; kebabs, $14; large plates, $16-$26; desserts, $8
Mon.-Thu., 5-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 5-11pm; Sun., 11am-3pm & 5-10pm