What a great find, this little place just west of 51st & Yale. Unless you read this or hear by word of mouth, Ali Baba is a fabulous find that might be easily overlooked. Once discovered, the Mediterranean cuisine here is quite memorable. Cacophonic design styles clash a bit, but the menu is a harmonious variety of traditional and family-inspired Mediterranean dishes -- and, the service is friendly and homey.
Seema and Shahram Ahmadi are the owners of Ali Baba, a name which immediately conjures up exotic Persian tales, but for Seema and Shahram it is a name of special significance. "When I was thinking what to call the restaurant, my son, Ali, was sitting next to me, and in front of me was my husband and Ali's dad which is what Baba means. So, Ali Baba was what we decided to name it," Seema said, smiling.
In business now for four years, Seema boasts that the food here is "100 percent healthy and homemade." She said "our food is very healthy because it is not greasy and there is no fat." Seema is also proud of the fact that the dishes are prepared fresh daily. Two to three times a day they make the hummus and tabouli, and six to seven times a day they make the basmati rice. Seema makes her own yogurt and she even boils and prepares chickpeas for various dishes, such as the hummus and falafel.
Seema points out a few of the vegetarian dishes: the Vegetarian Mediterranean Platter ($9.99) which is a bed of Basmati rice topped with Falafel, together with stuffed grape leaves, hummus, tabouli, grilled pita bread and special sauce, which Seema said is their homemade tahini sauce. "The Falafel," a patty made with chickpeas as the main ingredient, "is also a good vegetarian and healthy dish," she said.
My dining experience here included a variety of items: Falafel Sandwich ($4.89); Gyro Sandwich ($5.10); Kabob Sultani ($15.99), Mediterranean Platter ($9.99); Khoresht Ghaimeh Platter ($11.99); and Baghlava ($1.99/each). My friend and I shared these dishes, beginning with the Falafel Sandwich. To make this, grilled pita bread is filled with a veggie patty which Seema said she makes with freshly prepared chickpeas, curry powder, Persian seasonings and parsley; this is then topped with hummus, lettuce and tomato. Healthy eating is what first comes to mind eating this sandwich. The patty was dry and rich with Mediterranean flavors -- and heavy on the curry, but with the hummus and vegetables, it made for a light, but filling sandwich.
Can't dine Mediterranean style without sampling the Gyro Sandwich. Ali Baba's version has to be one of the best I've had. My friend and I found the meat (lamb and beef) tender and seasoned well. Seema said the meat is grilled on a traditional vertical spit. The sandwich has a plentiful amount of gyro meat, lettuce, tomato, onion and takziki sauce (a sauce made of strained yogurt, cucumbers, garlic, lemon juice and parsley).
The Kabob Sultani is a skewer of grilled beef kabob and one skewer of grilled marinated filet mignon served on a bed of basmati rice and a grilled whole tomato. Seema stepped into the kitchen and brought out an example of how the grilled beef is prepared: seasoned ground meat is padded and molded onto a very long, flat skewer then grilled. The ending result is a savory, tender patty of ground grilled beef. The marinated filet is prepared in the same fashion; it was very tender, partially from the marinade and partially from the cut of beef. The basmati rice shouldn't be overlooked, with this platter or with any other dishes. The rice is outstanding, mainly because it is made often throughout the day, so servings always are fresh. The slender long, free-flowing grains are light and airy, with a slight flower fragrance to it.
By now my friend and I were filling up, but still had a few more dishes to sample. The Mediterranean Platter is a sampler plate of sorts beginning with a bed of basmati rice then topped with gyro meat, a cabbage roll, stuffed grape leaves, hummus tabouli, grilled pita bread and the takziki sauce. The cabbage roll is substantial: large cabbage leaves are tightly wrapped around rice and ground meat -- the yellow hue of the rice reflects the dominate curry flavor of the roll. Seema said the "Persian spices and parsley" are what set these cabbage rolls apart from other versions.
The stuffed grape leaves with this dish are only filled with rice, Seema said. Each is small enough to pop in the mouth: the earthy taste of the grape leaves and the creaminess of the rice together with the olive oil and lemon juice create a healthy side. Seema's tabouli is heavy on the parsley and has a crisp citrus flavor.
Seema said the Khoresht Ghaimeh Platter is a traditional Persian meal. This is actually a stew made with beef, split-peas and dried limes then topped with potato slices. This was a rich dish which was nice over the basmati rice. The limes were a less than prominent flavor, but the beef and peas (somewhat firm) were the bulk of this tomato-based stew, with a subtle smoky flavor.
For dessert, the Baghlava was dripping with honey, and was very crisp and fresh. As with all the other foods, this also is homemade.
Seema said most of the dishes are family recipes or her own creations. She offered me a sample of an item soon to be featured on the menu, an okra stew. This is made of ground beef, okra, potatoes, tomato sauce and Persian spices. This is an incredibly flavorful stew, with a rich depth of flavors. Some very popular Platters on the menu, said Seema, are the Zereshk Rice Platter (an eggplant dish), Kabob Sultani Platter, the Chicken Curry Platter, and the Stamboli Rice Platter.
Seema pointed out that her menu also caters to those who might prefer non-Mediterranean dishes. Also offered (and again, all homemade) are Soups and Chili, Super spuds, Wraps (Turkey, Ham & Cheese, Chicken, Veggie Avocado), Rice De Lite (Stir Fry Vegetables, Grilled Chicken & Cheese, or Gyro Meat & Cheese) served on a bed of basmati rice, and Sandwiches (3 Cheese Avocado, Smoked Turkey & Cheese, Grilled Chicken and Turkey, Ham & Cheese). "Many people who come for lunch prefer these items, and the price is very good for lunch," she said. Lunches are from $3.15 for a cup of soup to $7.99 for the Rice De Lite dishes.
Seema is quick to mention that orders can be called in, ordered over the Internet, and then picked up at the drive-through window for quicker service. Also, Ali Baba has full catering as well.
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