William El-Biri has heard all the cynical things people mutter about his hometown of Solon, not the least of which is that some residents are too unadventurous to support a restaurant serving unfamiliar cuisine.
"Everybody underestimates Solon," says El-Biri, who along with a few partners opened Saaj Lebanese Grill this past June in that faraway burb. "People don't always want to eat at Applebee's or Panini's or Taco Bell. But when we want to eat somewhere good, we feel like we have to drive to Chagrin Falls or Chagrin Boulevard."
Few people know the Solon market as thoroughly as El-Biri. For 30 years, his family has operated the popular Chicago Deli, a local institution. And he gets customer service, having spent the better part of two decades managing various Aladdin's and Taza locations around town. The Lebanese part? Well, that just comes natural.
El-Biri says that cuisine aside, all restaurant customers are looking for the same thing: a nice, clean dining room, good service, quality food and solid value. That's pretty much the formula at Saaj, where diners enjoy an attractive and contemporary space, eager and pleasant service, and delicious, made-from-scratch Lebanese food.
The 4,200-square-foot space, home to a few failed fast-casual concepts, was gutted and rebuilt from scratch. It seats 100 in a multi-level dining room, with additional seating on a newly built patio. A small bar with a handful of seats is ideal for solo diners or those grabbing a to-go order.
The menu will look familiar to any Lebanese food fan, with the usual roster of dips and spreads, grilled meats and fish, and stuffed pita sandwiches. But don't expect the dishes to taste exactly the same as what's dished up at other Middle Eastern joints. "The dishes are not Americanized," says El-Biri. "These recipes are my mom's, my aunt's – this is what we ate at home. I want to show you the real foods of my culture."
The first "real food" you'll encounter – and the one the restaurant takes its name from – is saaj, the warm, fluffy flatbread that accompanies every meal. It's more like naan than pita – tender, light and pocket-free. It's paired here with za'atar, that intensely nutty and thyme-forward olive oil-based dip. Another perfect mate for the bread is the pan-seared slabs of halloumi ($6.95), a salty, squeaky cheese cut with fresh mint and sweet balsamic glaze. Another great accompaniment for the fresh-baked bread is the labneh ($6.95), a thick and creamy yogurt perked up with garlic and fresh mint.
There are nearly a dozen salads, all fresh, bountiful and, when topped with falafel, grilled salmon or a kebob, ample enough for a full meal. The fattoush ($8.45) is served out of a large bowl filled with a mix of crisp greens, tomatoes, cukes, peppers and bits of toasted pita chips, the best part. For something even lighter and brighter, it's tough to top the tabouli ($7.95), an herb garden in a bowl starring parsley, bulgur and lemon.
Saaj offers about a half dozen kebob platters built around grilled meat or vegetables, which are served alongside rice or couscous. The kafta ($15.95) – an aggressively seasoned beef and spice mixture – arrives hot, charred and ridiculously juicy. It's great with either the included tahini or garlic sauce, but do yourself a favor and request the house hot sauce. It's a fiery veggie-based concoction made from red and green bell peppers, garlic, vinegar, oil and a host of other ingredients that improves everything it comes in contact with. Other kebobs feature marinated chicken breast ($15.95), beef tenderloin ($17.95), seasoned lamb ($17.95), and veggie ($12.95). A pair of simply prepared fish items – Mediterranean spiced grilled salmon ($17.95) and a pan-seared white fish ($18.95) – round out the entrees.
There may be no more iconic Lebanese dish than the mudardara ($10.95), a hearty, soul satisfying mixture of rice, lentils, chickpeas and deeply caramelized onions. That it also happens to be healthy and vegetarian is proof that Lebanese cuisine, while perhaps not yet routine, is bound for wider acceptance.
"This food is becoming very popular – it's fresh, it's healthy, and there are a lot of vegetarian options," explains El-Biri. "People want to know what goes into their bodies."