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Restaurant reviews in Tyson's and surrounding area... mostly

Monday, May 25, 2015

Saba Yemeni Restaurant - Fairfax, VA

3900 Pickett Road
Fairfax, VA 22031
Tel:(703) 425-1130

If you are looking for a taste of Yemen without getting on the plane, we are lucky to have a new restaurant called Saba right here in Northern Virginia! 

Saba Restaurant opened about a year ago, offering Yemeni comfort food specialties consisting primarily of large portions of meat and rice, cooked with delicious spices. If you are not a meat eater, your options will be limited, but it's definitely worth the visit anyway. After all, this newcomer made it on the coveted list of Washingtonian's 25 Best Inexpensive Restaurants in the DC area!

Saba is a medium-size restaurant, about 20 tables, with a large sectioned-off area in the back, where you can dine in a true Yemeni fashion, shoes off sitting on pillows on the floor.  We opted for a table when we came with a group of about 10 friends. It is great to come with a group of adventurous friends, so that we had a chance to sample a variety of Saba's dishes. Unknowingly, we picked a popular night - Saturday - when Saba gets quite crowded, so the wait staff, though friendly and knowledgeable, were clearly stretched to their limit.

The crowded dining hall, coupled with the poor exhaust system of the building's older construction, where Saba is located, made for a somewhat stuffy and hot atmosphere. We visited the previous tenant of this space - Sheba Ethiopian Restaurant, which we reviewed back in 2013, and this unfortunate feature of poor ventilation has remained.  In fact, the decor, the furnishings, and even the plates were exactly the same in Saba as they were in Sheba! So, by the looks of it, not much was spent on overhead in the transtition from an Ethiopian to a Yemeni restaurant.

One important thing did change, however, and not for the better: There is no alcohol served in Saba restaurant. None served and none allowed on the premises, so no BYOB. This was quite disappointing.

The menu options in Saba are monotone:  (1) Beef or lamb can be either roasted or slow-roasted; served on a bone, shredded or in a stew; (2) The spices seem to be rather identical from dish to dish; (3) The same side of the Yemeni salsa-type condiment called "sahawiq" comes with most entrees; (4) The generous portions of extra long grain saffron basmati rice or warm pita accompany all the food; (5) All platters are served family-style, ready to share, and all are sprinkled with wormy-looking onion bits; And finally, (6) all stews are topped with the same whipped-fenugreek dressing.  The Saltah stew, offered with either beef or only vegetables, comes out in a hot pot. The other entrees are served on large family-style platters.  All entrees come with generous portions of green salad with a light olive oil dressing, which the waiters brought out in large family-style platters, also.  Though there is not much variety to the menu, all the food we ordered was very good, flavorful and enough to share with friends.

One note, that of the two portions of Lamb Mandi that we ordered, one was quite fatty.  The staff, to their credit, offered to take it back and bring out another cut of lamb, so keep in mind if yours comes out this way.

We were disappointed when the appetizers we ordered never arrived AND when the restaurant actually ran out of silverware and gave several people in our group plasticware to use. Quite challenging to use plasticware with hot dishes, especially when it came to cutting meat!  We understand that the restaurant was filled to capacity with large parties, but.... come on.  Fortunately, the lamb and beef were soft enough to cut with a plastic knife.

Yet, a third disappointment came when we were ready to order dessert.  The menu featured a list of about 6 or 7 desserts that all sounded delicious.  Curiously, 5 of them ranged between $20 and $40 each!  We were told that they were unavailable for single portion ordering, they could be served only for larger parties. So why list them on a menu?  Individual portions were available only for two featured desserts: Rowani and Basboussa. BUT but they were out or Rowani! So, through process of elimination by the restaurant, we were stuck with Basboussa. We shared two orders among six of us, which was more than enough.  The Basboussa was a bit grainy because of the semolina base, only slightly sweet, and overall a light and good ending to our meal.

In all, we had a nice dinner out with our our adventurous friends.  Although we left happy and with full bellies, the experience was rather on the disappointing side and we are unlikely to return.  Do we recommend that you go to try it once? Yes. But that's about it.

 Entrance to Saba Restaurant is on the left side of the small shopping strip

 Main dining room with bar area under the TV

 Wall decor

 Sahawiq - Yemeni "Salsa" served with all dishes as a garnish

 Salad with delicate olive oil dressing and spices, brought out to share that comes with all entrees

 Lamb Mandi - roasted lamb with a generous portion of basmati rice and sahawiq (on side)

Haneeth - slow-roasted lamb with the same generous portion of basmati rice and sahawiq (on side)

 Saltah - traditional Yemeni stew served with warm pita bread

Basboussa - semolina dessert with honey, the only dessert that was available out of 7 on the menu


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