Tucked into the bottom of the small plates section of the menu at the new restaurant replacing decades-old Cleveland Park standby Ardeo is a dish both Rammy Award-winning restaurateur Ashok Bajaj and his newly minted executive chef Ryan Moore are very excited to spring on the dining public: a platter of flame-grilled hot peppers branded as “Not for the faint of heart.”
“I was so mad that I didn’t think of if first,” Moore, a Minibar alum who is leading the kitchen at Israeli-inspired restaurant Sababa — scheduled to debut Thursday, March 15 — says of the smoky, spicy offering he’s hoping will land on every table. Unlike the snack-sized salatim items designed to open up diners’ appetites, Moore says the plate of spicy peppers is more like a condiment patrons should revisit throughout the course of any given meal.
Moore tells Eater that Bajaj returned from a research trip to the Middle East with the peppery platter already in mind. But Moore said he made it his own by searing the rotating mix of peppers — expect serranos, habaneros, fresnos, and Thai chiles to start; Moore is working on incorporating locally grown fish peppers and bird’s eye chiles down the line — on a combination gas grill and smoker that also burns solid fuel ranging from peach and cherry woods (which he tends to bundle together) to hickory and pieces of used bourbon barrels (seasoning bundle number two). He finishes things off by accompanying the scorched peppers with servings of paprika-spiked harissa and herb-laced zhug he’s been perfecting for months now.
According to Moore, the peppers go with just about everything on the rest of the menu, from the lamb shank he cures for 24 hours with salt, coriander, and cumin that’s grilled and then slow-cooked in schmaltz for five hours, to the pan-seared sardines he accompanies with charred zucchini that also get folded into a side composed of tahini paste and crumbled feta.
He’s also excited for people to try his version of taameya, a fava bean-based falafel he prefers to chickpea productions, as well as the lentil and onion-laced pasta Moore says he devours every time he visits family overseas. “Kushari is the first and last thing I eat when I’m in Egypt,” he says of the ubiquitous dish he’s snacked on at people’s homes, restaurants, and even gas stations.
Bajaj has high hopes for halloumi partnered with dates, honey, and charred lemon, and remains confident the neighborhood will appreciate a jalapeno-spiked shakshuka dressed up with sous vide eggs.
Once weekend brunch service starts in April, Bajaj is looking forward to unveiling another dish that struck a chord with him while dining in Tel Aviv: the sabich. Sababa’s take on the traditional sandwich is projected to feature fried eggplant, onions, hard boiled eggs, and harissa stuffed into a pita pocket.
Moore, meanwhile, says he’s still recipe testing an okra-like stew known as molokhia and plans to have visiting relatives weigh in on a dish others outside Egypt might not be familiar with — roasted whole pigeon with the head still on — before presenting to the general public.
“There’s still dishes I’m afraid to bring to the American palate,” Moore says.
Status: Scheduled to open at 5 p.m. on Thursday, March 15. 3311 Connecticut Avenue NW