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HEART OF PALM
GRILL PUTS TWISTS ON MEDITERRANEAN CUISINE

The newly opened Sahara Grill is a big place, but it is cleverly decorated to give a warm feeling. Vivid desert colors cover the walls, and there's a faux palm tree that reaches to the ceiling in the very middle of the room.

Middle Eastern music plays -- Sahara says it serves "authentic Mediterranean cuisine," and the music sets the mood.

There are a few exceptions on the menu, though. The Companion's first course special, for instance, was Chicken Enchilada Soup, and very tasty it was, too.

Similarly, the restaurant signatures called "lavash wraps" are based, according to the menu, on a tomato or plain tortilla, although some are stuffed with tabbouleh or hummus. (Lavash bread is usually thinner and crisper than a tortilla.) The dessert list includes Creme Caramel and Tiramisu. A slight case of savory schizophrenia.

I began my meal with what turned out to be the best dish of the night. Khabz Thawa ($4.99) was a large-enough-for-two portion of fine housemade bread, thinly pressed and grilled. The bread, truly excellent, came with a choice of hummus, garlic sauce or melted cheese.

Among the entrees, I selected Lamb Chops ($12.99). Turned out to be a really good buy. Three double-thick loin chops, tender and tasty, were topped with a compound garlic butter and accompanied by the largest helping of rice pilaf I've ever seen. The rice was topped, what is more, by slivered almonds.

The Companion opted for Almond Garlic Rice Ghallaba ($11). Slivers of slightly chewy beef sauteed with vegetables (lots of green beans). The dish was served with that same rice.

Fatoush is the house salad here and, frankly, it could be better than it was. The romaine, cucumbers and parsley in this traditional mix simply didn't taste fresh enough to me. And this is a bad time of year for tomatoes.

Desserts were just so-so. The Baklava ($2.99) was built from heavy pastry and lacked sugar syrup on top. Creme Caramel ($3.25) was simply not rich enough.

But you can order Mammool, honey-drenched Sabaya or Rice Pudding if you'd rather. Skip the Caramel Apple and Key Lime pies. You can get them elsewhere. All the usual Middle Eastern dishes like shish kabobs, souvlaki and sharwama are available.

Classic Buffalo Chicken Fingers are $6.79; an all-American burger is also available.

SAHARA GRILL ** 1/2 *

WHERE: 976 Elmwood Ave. (885-0200). A large, funkily decorated restaurant that specializes in Mediterranean cuisine. No wine or beer yet. Credit Cards: MasterCard, Visa.

FAVORITE DISH: Khabz Thawa (pressed bread with a choice of spreads)

NEEDS WORK: Faoosh

PRICE RANGE: Appetizers from $4.49. Entrees from around $10.

SERVICE: Very good

NOISE LEVEL: Moderate

HOURS: Lunch and dinner until about 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday

HEALTHY CHOICES: Many low-fat vegetarian options

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes

PARKING: On the street

KID APPEAL: High

e-mail: jokun@buffnews.com