Sahara Palace offers luscious Lebanese fare
When I think of Lebanese food in Edmonton, I tend to think of restaurants that lay on really good shawarma or shish taouk, but are less concerned with elevating the environs in which you consume their food above the ambiance of the average donair joint. Of course there are exceptions, but few are as exceptional as Sahara Palace, a quasi-fancy—they still have big flat screen TVs—dining room deep in the heart of Castle Downs, not far from my perennial Lebanese breakfast fave Castle Bake.
Sahara Palace is absolutely sprawling inside with so many tables you can’t take the whole place in at a glance. It has a stage, a big dance floor and a sizable bar. What’s more, it looks pretty fancy, with gleaming tiles, a tintype ceiling and rippling harvest gold walls that resemble the striated sands of the eponymous desert (which, for the record, is not in Lebanon). You could have a helluva wedding reception in there. Like so many Lebanese restaurants, they also provide shisha, but no designated shisha-smoking area, so you may find clouds of apple-scented smog wafting into your vicinity no matter where you sit.
The menu touches on Lebanese staples from hummus to kabob, and they’ll make you a burger if that’s what you really want. But there’s also fancy entrees in the $28 range or, if you’re feeding a small army, you can order a kilo of various grilled meats for $51. Co-diner and I were slightly less hungry than that, so we decided to make a meal from the cold and hot mezza (appetizer) selections. If we had it to do over again, we would have brought at least two more co-diners to delve even further into the menu, because everything we tried was unique and extremely tasty.
Of course we’d had fattoush salad before but the Sahara Palace version ($10/half order) brought the expected crunchy (romaine, bell peppers, radish, pita crisps) and savoury (red onions, mint, EVOO, lemon and red wine vinegar) together, then drizzled them with pomegranate molasses and topped them with strands of chewy white cheese that on first glance we mistook for cabbage. Entirely satisfying, and plenty for two people.
Next came the mouhamara ($14), an ample portion of dip made from ground walnuts, roasted red pepper, onions and garlic, with a hint of heat. The mound was dressed up with sliced veggies, pita crisps and more of that chewy white string cheese, and in true Lebanese style, enough pita for six people was presented on the side. I’m sure their hummus and baba ghanoush are well worth trying, but the mouhamara had a velvety, pate-like richness—with a spicy tingle—we were glad to have sampled. And it was so substantial, we had to take some home.
The sanake harra ($16) was a red snapper fillet smothered in spicy tahini sauce and topped with chopped almonds and bell peppers. The roasty, citrusy flavour of ground coriander played a leading role in the flavour with a fiery undertone that mounted bite upon bite.
Finally, our friendly server, who seemed to be genuinely pleased that we were taking such enjoyment in the food, offered to let us do a half-and-half of the kibbeh and bih jibni, which usually come six to an order ($15). The former are little football-shaped croquettes with a chewy-crisp exterior made of bulgur wheat and a ground beef interior redolent of cinnamon and allspice. The latter were pastry turnovers filled with garlicky cheese seasoned with a hint of fennel. If we had more people on hand to share our repast, we could have ordered some labneh (strained yogurt mashed with garlic and mint) to dip them in, but they were entirely pleasing and good on their own.
To our palates, Sahara Palace got everything right—including allowing us to watch Olympic bobsledding to a Lebanese pop soundtrack—and gave us plenty of reasons to go back. If you’re after a next-level Lebanese dining experience, you should now know exactly what to do.
#110 10807 Castledowns Rd.