Aficionados of Middle Eastern cuisine have a compelling option in Saj, a picturesque new restaurant on Magazine Street that opened quietly during the pandemic’s peak last summer. With its crisp, contemporary design featuring splashes of bold color and elegant tile, Saj joins a short but notable list of establishments that distinctly levels up the quality and sourcing for Middle Eastern fare. You won’t find budget $5 gyros platters here. Think, instead, along the line of tangy pucks of whole baked feta, sweetened with a glaze of herbed Egyptian honey and tahini enlivened with the bright pop of fresh sweet peas.
Chef and business partner Sean “Pooch” Rivera is the guy in the kitchen who makes it happen. “We’ve put our heart into this restaurant,” he said, noting that the concept is driven less by geography than it is by sourcing. “We try to hit every farmers market that we can,” Rivera says. “Olive oil from Turkey. Sumac from Palestine and fresh mint we grow on-site here.” The ingredient-driven menu incorporates such items, weaving a loose template of North African, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavor profiles to frame the creations.
Attention to sourcing and preparing the bedrock condiments in-house makes all the difference. The “zhug,” which blends thyme, mint, parsley and oregano with onions and fresh garlic for bite, brightens many of the dishes. The recommended way to approach a meal here is through an assortment of “mezze,” sharing them family-style with torn strips of the namesake “saj,” an Arabic flatbread baked in-house and dusted with sumac. “Saj is the vessel that brings everyone together,” Rivera said. “It is how everyone participates in this meal.” Essential dishes like hummus are enlightened with lemon juice and olive oil and pair well with the saj. Be sure to order the “jebna,” a crumbly dip of fresh herbs, cheese, peppers and more. Falafel too is a standout, with the golden-brown spheres of chickpea opening to a verdant center freshened with garlic and parsley. Firm cubes of fried Halloumi cheese squeak like curds against teeth when bitten into, and the aforementioned baked feta is win-win as well. “This cuisine is about taking natural ingredients and just getting the best out of them than we can,” Rivera said. By-in-large the food is not fancy, just well-sourced and executed.
Diners here can easily enjoy a vegetarian meal without missing a thing. However, if meat is on the menu consider the “kufta,” Lebanese meatballs lacquered in a tangy tomato sauce, or any number of items from the Mashawi wood-fired oven. Lamb chops have proven to be one of the most popular dishes, Rivera said. Pistachio shells and olive pits from production supplement the blaze, reinforcing flavor and adding a unique element to the smoke.
Going into summer look for Rivera to put more of an emphasis on desserts, including homemade ice creams and sorbets. As life returns more-or-less to normal, in-house dining has resumed, but Saj presents a style of cuisine that adapts well to carry-out, which was a boon during the lean pandemic start-up phase. Catering and event space are available as well.
Saj, 4126 Magazine St., Uptown, 766-0049, Sajnola.com.
ABOUT THE CHEF
A New Orleans native, Sean Rivera got his start cooking as a teenager at the “ain’t dere no more” Barreca’s on Metairie Road many years ago. More recently, Rivera took home a Louisiana Cooking “Chef to Watch” Award in 2018. Rivera has worked closely with restauranteur Edgar Caro and helped open Zocalo on Metairie Road. Relatively new to Middle Eastern cuisine, Rivera is struck by its relationship to Latin American cooking. “Familiar ingredients like cumin, coriander and cilantro can be employed in different ways to create very different flavor profiles,” he observed. “The ingredients I’ve worked with all my life get used in a whole new way here.”