Sapphire is following the trend of the moment by offering a menu of appetizer-sized portions, called “Spice Plates.”
We wondered why they call them “Spice Plates” instead of “small plates,” which everybody else in town is doing, but as soon as we tasted our first one, we knew! It was all about spices. In fact, this review will also serve as a little primer on spice mixtures from far off places.
Azmin Ghahreman, citizen of the world — born in Iran, educated in Switzerland — has cooked almost everywhere, in places as far-flung as Istanbul, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Sydney and Maui. His knowledge of spices is equally international and is given its fullest expression in this new menu, which offers a trip through the spice markets of the world. If you are not in the mood for their dinner menu, or just want a bite to accompany a drink or, like us, want to try as many different tastes as possible in a single meal, this is an exciting way to go.
It was too cold, even with their lovely fire pit, to sit outside on the ocean view patio but it is equally pleasant sitting inside the refurbished shell of the old Pottery Shack with its high ceiling, rustic woods, unique contemporary glass lighting fixtures and comfortable upholstered chairs.
We happily managed to eat our way through more than half of the 12 offerings on the Spice Menu. Because we were writing a review, we decided to order exclusively from this menu, much to the dismay of our sweet, young waiter who was concerned about our nutritionally unbalanced meal and suggested that we might want to order a salad. When Elle told him that she had eaten Swiss chard and carrots for lunch, he felt much better about our choices.
We began with gambas a la plancha. This Spanish- inspired dish had two well-seasoned, grilled jumbo prawns that arrived in a fascinating sauce of sweet and hot paprikas, cracked coriander and olive oil. We sopped up every last bit with their famous cheese bread (note: It usually comes warm and is irresistible but ours was not so hot).
Our next plate took us to Africa with red curried swordfish. The distinctive taste of this fish paired nicely with the complex curry sauce enlivened by a touch of cayenne and the sweet hint of mango. The red splash of the finishing tomato relish was a nice decorative detail.
The United Nations in a dish was a Creole-spiced seared ahi with beer, shoyu mustard sauce. Creole spices are a mixture of Spanish, French and African influences (paprika, thyme, basil, cayenne, filé powder and chili powder). A rub of these spices zipped up the Japanese style seared ahi, which rested in the brash mustard sauce. Although it was strongly flavored, it didn’t overwhelm the excellent sushi-grade tuna.
The next dish would have been unidentifiable without its title on the menu — Filipino coconut banana fish wrap. All we knew was that it was a deep fried ball. The coconut batter dominated. Inside was a bit of fish around something soft and creamy, which must have been the banana. It tasted pretty good, especially when dipped in the accompanying Jufran sauce (spicy Filipino banana “ketchup” that contains no tomato but is bright red with food coloring).
On we go to Indonesia with chicken martabak. It looks very much like a spring roll. A seasoned, ground chicken mixture with bits of carrot and lentil is wrapped with a thin filo-like pastry and deep-fried. Rather than the traditional dark sweet-and-sour sauce, Chef Azmin goes to India for a yellow split pea dal, redolent with garlic, cumin, mustard seeds and tumeric, a lovely variation that made a great sauce for the chicken roll.
Tunisian Merguez (lamb sausage) is used to make a kebab, seasoned lightly with tabil (coriander, garlic, caraway and cayenne). The meat was delicious on its own but the sauce, a mixture of tomatoes, capers and harissa (Moroccan hot sauce) was a bit too strong and acidic.
We continued our world tour with Middle Eastern falafel. For those not familiar with these deep-fried balls, they are made with ground garbanzo beans, onions, garlic, coriander, cumin and parsley. Here, these are served on their own with a minty yogurt sauce seasoned with zahtar (a blend of thyme, oregano, marjoram, sesame seeds and salt; regional variations add fennel, cumin, coriander and sumac).
Sapphire’s falafel were a bit under seasoned and the outside was over-cooked making it too thick and heavy, but the refreshing yogurt sauce helped.
Other places Azmin can take you are: Oaxaca, for a duck mole quesadilla; China, for Szchuan pork and tofu egg noodle; Israel, for apple curried chicken liver with crispy lavash or the U.S., for a steamed cheeseburger with spicy mayonnaise.
We ended our tour with dessert from New Zealand. Pavlova is a dessert named after a famous ballerina and is as light as a tour jeté; two cloud-like layers of meringue filled with custard, topped with whipped cream, drizzled with raspberry sauce and strewn with blackberries and raspberries. What’s not to like?
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Sapphire, (949) 715-9888
WHERE: 1200 S. Coast Hwy.
WHEN: 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and brunch 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., dinner 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Sunday
Spice Plates: $7 to $9.50
Bottles: $26 to $510
Half carafe $17 to $43
By the glass: $8 to $22
Corkage Fee: $25
ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ owned a la Carte for 20 years and can be reached at email@example.com.