BY ALEX SUNDSTROM
At first glance, Sabra Grill is just another ridiculous Harvard Square cliché. An Arabic radio station on one visit lapses into an English song extolling the virtues of hard work and punctuality, and the framed picture of Beirut on the wall seems like a reminder to uphold a plucky immigrant ethic. The Lebanese food, however, defies all expectations — it’s all inexpensive deliciousness and no irony.
Sabra Grill’s strength is its grilled meat. The chunks of grilled lamb are very lean and come perfectly charred on the hot grill, just enough to impart a charcoal flavor to the outside without ruining the savory flavor or tenderness of the interior. They are best sampled in plate form ($7.50), where they are drizzled with tahini and served with salad, rice pilaf and a dollop of creamy hummus. The lamb sandwich ($5.50) is a good takeout alternative — it has slightly less meat and is paired with just lettuce, tomato and tahini sauce in a rolled pita.
The kofta ($7 for a plate, $4.95 for a sandwich) — a patty-like mixture of ground lamb, beef, onion and parsley – is even more impressive, mostly because it is grilled to order, rather than cooked in advance and reheated in a common strategem that destroys its flavor. The lean texture and strong beefy flavor calls out for dipping in a dish of hot sauce.
Like any good Middle-Eastern fast food, Sabra Grill features a shawarma — a gigantic cone of multi-layered chicken meat impaled on a skewer and cooked by rotation on a vertical axis in front of a heating element, then scraped off into a metal tray for sandwich application. The spinning chicken is a great display — it creates the feeling that exciting, productive things are happening, even if business is slow. It’s easy to get mesmerized by the rotating, glistening chicken, so moist and dripping that you want to jump across the counter and embrace it, but the reality is somewhat disappointing –a sandwich ($5.50) ordered at midday was lukewarm and bland despite the addition of garlic paste.
The vegetarian options are strong. The best is the pumpkin kibbeh, ($3.50 for a piece, $6.25 for a plate) which sports lemony sautéed spinach and onions sandwiched between warm, soft crusts of cracked wheat and pumpkin that give instantly when bitten into. The special vegan sandwich ($4.95) is the only sandwich actually grilled, with the heat fusing the flavors of hummus and sauteed spinach, onions and zucchini together in grand fashion. The other options are all well-made with fresh ingredients, but poorer values than the meat dishes. A mazza plate ($8.75) contains perfect hummus and a minty, acidic tabouli — a salad made from parsley, scallions, onions and tomatoes, good grape leaves and falafel that is disappointingly dry and flavorless. All these are available as plates ($4.95-6.25) or sandwiches ($4.95). The spinach pastry in phyllo dough ($2.75) is a disappointment, too oily and tough in layers, with too little feta to balance the spinach.
Rosewater gives the baklava ($1.50) a perfect touch of sweetness and prevents the layers of dough from drying out. Succse ($.75) — balls of flour, milk and coconut — are either bland or quite flavorful depending on the day, but are probably not worth the risk. Date-stuffed cookies, or mamoul, are advertised with a colorful sign but are never actually on hand — ask about them, and you will get a cheerful promise that they’ll be available the next day, when they will not in fact be available. The restaurant’s optimism, however, is infectious.
Sabra Grill has been a simple, earnest place for over 25 years — a relic of a less chain-dominated Harvard Square. The buckets of gigantic carrots (used for making carrot juice), wobbly tables and strange full-length mirror don’t really convey the sense of being swept away to an exotic locale, but the food is good enough that it doesn’t really matter.