Israeli lunch experience feels like home
There are few restaurants in Gainesville that I feel truly offer an utterly exclusive product. Eggs Benedict comes in many shapes and sizes, and burgers are made with this and that combination of meats/veggies/what-have-you at a number of establishments, but one thing completely unique may be the niche a restaurant fills. Let me explain: It is not common to get true Israeli food in Gainesville, and Sababa has become the only restaurant in Hogtown to offer Kosher meals with all Kosher products.
This Israeli cuisine-serving restaurant, which started out in the UF Hillel center on University Ave., serves Kosher meals and is rapidly becoming more popular. On August 31 of last year, then-owner Liora Volkovich stopped running the business. The next day, one of her daughters, Yael Goldstein, and Yael's fiance, Riley Sullivan, took over. However, Liora stated, "I retired, but I am still here about 60 hours a week."
On March 17 of this year, a permanent Sababa location was opened at the Sun Center on SE 2nd Place in downtown Gainesville.
I decided it was as good a time as any to check out the new digs downtown and grabbed my dining companion, Alyssa. If you didn't know where in the Sun Center the Middle Eastern food-serving joint was located, you could almost miss Sababa, but a constant stream of patrons bustling in and out signified we had arrived. The inside seating area, on first glance, seemed very simple with no frills, about six tables of various sizes with paisley chairs and a few framed photos on the wall contributed to the low-key feel.
When you enter the restaurant, to the left in a separate area overlooking the dining area, a small counter emerged with a few customers in line and a full chalkboard menu. As I usually do with most restaurants I haven't dined at before, before I checked online to see what was on the menu, and I am very glad I did. Food items, such as bamia, schwarma, and mellawach, would have been gibberish to me had I not researched what each contained. Alyssa was certainly grateful of this, commenting, "I can always count on you to tell me what things are and what I should order." She didn't even blink when I asked if we could get two separate entrees and split them to maximize our tasting menu.
Armed with my researched plans for what foods I wanted, I ordered us the Falafel plate, $9.99 (image at top) and the Chicken Schnitzel plate. However, Liora, who was there, informed me that they were out of chicken and expecting a shipment the next day. Although saddened, I am not deterred by vegetarian or vegan food options, and the Veggie Schnitzel, $10.99, made with a breaded soy-based patty, was worth a try. She even had me go outside and ask a customer who was dining on the Veggie Schnitzel if it was any good! I obliged, although I knew the veggie option would be a perfectly adequate substitute. Liora also urged me to come back soon for the chicken. She was even so nice as to include a side of Bamia, despite the couscous and potatoes being the menu-prescribed sides.
After about 10 minutes, only a few customers' orders ahead of ours, Riley presented Alyssa and I with our heaping, colorful plates of Middle Eastern delight. When I say heaping, I mean I could barely see the plate underneath, and I was ecstatic to dive in to this beautiful array of good-for-you goodies. Alyssa and I split eight total pieces of falafel and I divided the "sweet and tangy" sauce-covered tofu schnitzel. Each plate, in addition to our small side cups of couscous and bamia, came with five different types of "salad," as well as a heaping ladle-full of hummus, a large pita and a small cup of t'hini sauce for dipping/dredging/devouring.
Everything was so, so good. Aside from the bamia, a stew with sautéed okra and tomato sauce, which was a little too heavy on the onions and overly tomato-y for my taste (awesomely spicy, though), I finished every last bite on my plate, and even some of Alyssa's veggies. If I hadn't known the schnitzel wasn't chicken, it would have been hard for me to distinguish the difference based on texture, as it was so light despite all the sweet orange sauce which I loved. The falafel, made with chickpeas, herbs and onions, was wonderfully crispy on the outside while being soft, but not crumbly, on the inside, the green coloring due to copious amounts of parsley and other herbs. When drizzled with the creamy, but not thick, t'hini sauce or dipped in the flavorful hummus and placed on a piece of warm pita, it was so satisfying. It was certainly the best falafel I have had, and I would order that marinated schnitzel over a dish of orange chicken any day, although I can't wait to try the chicken rendition of the dish.
As a veggie lover, the different salads were just as appealing to me as the protein on my plate. The cucumber salad with parsley was very refreshing, while the cabbage coleslaw-type salad was lightly dressed. Even the simple purple cabbage and diced tomato-cucumber concoction was a welcome addition. The carrots were probably my favorite, as Alyssa and I agreed that they were not too cooked or undercooked, but retained an ideal texture for carrots with some spice that elevated the simple vegetable to another culinary surprise on the plate. My plate was, metaphorically, licked clean. I also ordered some Limona'ana, pronounced limon-ana, which tasted like slightly watered down lemonade with mint, although I didn't taste the mint. I actually preferred it to the overly sweet, sugar-laden lemonade I am used to. Alyssa ordered what Liora described as "peach nectar," which was a can of peach juice, but Alyssa seemed to enjoy the flavor and the can, which was colorful and covered in Hebrew writing.
A minute or two before finishing our plates, Liora warmed up the Babka, $2, or sweet chocolate-swirled cake/bread, I had ordered earlier and brought it out to us, claiming it is much better eaten warm. She was right: Alyssa and I agreed it was way better than anticipated, the chocolate swirls became gooey pockets over the challah-type cake. Liora mentioned she wished she could eat them all the time.
Once we devoured our meals, Liora came and sat by me, as she did with the other customers, and asked what we thought. I showed her my empty plate, and she smiled, saying how she was glad the Veggie Schnitzel proved a tasty alternative. She then went on to remark how troublesome it could be to order everything Kosher, as many of the ingredients and products come from different locations. "We order the Kosher chicken from Miami; we get that Babka from a Georgia vendor who gets it from New York; we also order Kosher products from Ohio. There is nowhere else that serves Kosher food in Gainesville, so there is nowhere to get it here."
Sababa is the type of place you go to feel at home. A reviewer on the Sababa Facebook page said it best: "I'm Jewish and I feel like I'm home. My friends are not Jewish, and they feel like they're home. Best food." I felt like I was at a friend's home and was eating a home-cooked meal with the mother making sure the food is good and the plates are empty. Liora is the friendly, quirky Jewish mother who will always strike up conversation. I am Jewish, and my mother is guilty of making amazing food and making sure we all think it is amazing, too. While I have never been to an Israeli restaurant prior to Sababa and I did not grow up eating Kosher foods, despite my heritage, I felt very at home with this food. I also loved that I could eat every bite full of such a large portion and not feel uncomfortably full or as if I just devoured a greasy burger. I could honestly dine there anytime, whether for lunch or dinner or maybe even brunch, which they serve on Sundays. Babka French toast, anyone?
Side note to Liora: Mazel Tov on your daughters' upcoming weddings this September!
The Pluses and Minuses of Sababa: Excellent food, do not serve anything but Kosher which is a unique niche to fill in Gainesville, attention to detail, fantastic service, cohesive and refreshing flavors, can eat a ton without the guilt, made us feel like home, exceptional value, local eatery, vegan/vegetarian options.
Sababa + indicators: Fair chicken, quick prep time, decent price per food ratio
Sababa - indicators: Downtown parking is always a problem.
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