The old cliché “There’s nothing better than Grandma’s cooking” couldn’t have rung truer as I finished my appetizers in the desolate Sahara. The pita was dry, the discolored falafel could not have looked less appealing and the bland hummus was comparable to supermarket brands. Even the spanakopita, the one dish I had desperately hoped could live up to my expectations, washed out in a sandstorm of tasteless filo.
I should probably mention from the start that my expectations were unfairly high. For the expression mentioned earlier, “Grandma” is replaced by “Yiayia” and “cooking” entails exactly the foods that Sahara, located on 118 North Aurora Street in downtown Ithaca, serves. At home, my Yiayia cooked me the most delicious foods imaginable, and my standard for Mediterranean cuisine is lofty.
The first warning sign at Sahara was that there was not a single other customer in sight. I proceeded in the hope that the food could redeem the empty atmosphere. Maybe I had discovered a little known jewel of the Mediterranean that would dazzle me with its authentic cuisine. Then the appetizers came and I was disappointed. Next, the main courses came and I was disappointed. Finally, the desserts came and I was still disappointed. The dishes looked and tasted like the street food I used to get at my church’s annual fair — only worse. The gyro was sloppily thrown together and the shawarma dripped with grease. The only tasteful offering was the white bean and chicken chili that finished with a sharp spice. The baklava that topped off the meal was sweet and nutty but did not taste freshly made. I couldn’t stop thinking about how much I missed Yiayia and her cooking.
In hindsight, I don’t think any quality of food could have made that meal enjoyable. When you’re so used to a certain type of cooking and someone tries to imitate it, there’s no way to be content. I thanked the kind waitress and left the failed attempt to create an authentic Mediterranean oasis in the Commons. With other excellent options in the area offering the same eating experience — only more successfully — there are few reasons to stop by Sahara. If they start serving streetside then I might recommend grabbing a dish. Until then, you’re all invited to my Greek compound for dinner. Lesson learned: Never mess with a Greek boy and his Yiayia’s cooking.