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Arabic Fusion in a Hidden Oasis

One of the first things one notices about Saha is what there is not to notice. There is no street presence, since it's tucked away inside the Hotel Carlton (part of the Joie de Vivre boutique hotel chain, and situated next door to SF Station favorite Brick). Chances are you just don't stumble upon Saha; someone has to recommend it, or you just have to know, and that's part of the allure.

But once you do get past the hotel lobby and behind the red curtain that serves as the entrance to the restaurant, you're immediately transported to an intimate space bedecked in sumptuous reds, pinks and oranges. There is a small 4-seat bar tucked away in a corner to wait for your table, and reservations are recommended, but on most nights it's easy enough to settle in for a meal without too much advance notice.

Chef-owner Mohamed Aboghanem has created an "Arabic fusion" menu; a cursory glance over the menu reveals an eclectic assortment of dishes borrowing from both his Yemenese roots as well as more classical European traditions. It's a combination that mixes the savory and the sweet, typically with surprisingly delicious results. The menu is made for sharing, with equal sections devoted to small plates and entrees. Regular diners are hip to the 3-course prix fixe menu ($30), which includes soup or salad, choice of a small plate, and choice of one entree.

Whatever you decide, there are plenty of options for both meat eaters and vegetarians. The bastilla ($10), with chicken and almonds wrapped in phyllo, spiced with cinnamon and powdered sugar, is a classic, as is the beef ($9) or seafood ($10) kibbeh. There is a tasty vegan ($8) kibbeh as well.

It's hard to turn down the lamb kofta ($9) meatballs, marinated with cumin, mint and other spices, and served with zhoug, a Yemenese hot sauce. The baby okra ($8) is a nice vegetarian option, and is stewed with tomato, onion, and olive oil. Or start with the refreshing fattoush ($10) salad, tossed with extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice. Make sure to order some hummus and pita ($6) as well.

Saha being a Middle Eastern restaurant, it's no surprise that out of the entrees, the lamb tagine ($20) is a stand-out, as is the equally appetizing falling-off-the-bone lamb shank with a twist of Yemen ($20). The latter is braised with an aromatic blend of saffron, ginger and cinnamon, and served with herb mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables.

Couscous also plays a big part on Saha's menu. The classic Moroccan version can be prepared either as a vegetarian ($14) option, with chicken ($17), or with Merguez ($17), a Halal lamb sausage. The sweet seafood couscous ($18) is served with wild salmon, prawns, and ahi tuna, and is garnished with powdered sugar and cinnamon, again a seductive mixture that is deliciously effective. The crispy couscous tower ($16) is yet another way to enjoy this grain.

Saha's wine selection is limited and fairly Cal-centric, but prices by the glass are not off-putting ($7-10). The beer menu is limited as well, but with no less attention to quality offerings like the Westmalle Trappist Triple Ale ($7), or St. Peterís English Organic Ale ($6).

Even if there's no room for dessert (rhetorical question: isn't there always room for homemade Arabic tea and rose ice cream?), at least finish the meal with a cup of spiced tea with honey and mint: a pleasant close to an unexpected feast.

The restaurant also serves breakfast daily until 10:30am; the menu scatters from Yemenese fouel with eggs to the Cajun omelette, then rounds back home with more local offerings like crispy polenta eggs Benedict and pancakes. Prices hover between $8 and $9, making Saha's breakfast certainly worth a try for early birds.

Middle Eastern Fusion

Reservations essential? No.