On a carpeted dais, a pair of handsome brocade chairs covered in plastic stand next to a small table set with a tea service. Between the chairs a gypsy woman holding a guitar peeps from a dime-store painting. The diorama seems to be waiting for a royal couple to appear and claim their seats. Adjacent is a towering wall of rock down which water and green vines tumble into a reflecting pool. An enormous TV projects a music video of a distinguished gentleman with a salt-and-pepper goatee, crooning sadly while newsreel footage of a decimated and smoking Kabul streams by in the background.
Yet though the pink dining room is sumptuous, Ali Baba’s menu is strictly peasant fare, delivered with pride and panache. The baba ghanoush is the most garlicky I’ve ever tasted and utterly admirable; it’s a shame it comes with pitas rather than one of the locally made Central Asian breads. At least the pitas are warm, and they wrap nicely around the borani bodenjon ($4.25), slices of eggplant splatched like a Pollock painting with meaty-tasting red oil and herb-flecked yogurt. The vegetable has been fried so that the skin crispens and the interior becomes voluptuously oily. Equally appealing is sambuseh, a big cut-up turnover that spills ground meat onto the platter, offered with the same yogurt sauce.
Predictably, the heart of the menu is a series of charcoal-grilled kebabs ($6.95 to $11.95) with a choice of three rice accompaniments: plain basmati, red rice seasoned with meat drippings, and green rice laced with dill and baby lima beans, a toothsome masterpiece. The best kebabs are, in descending order: lamb rib (several CD-sized chops with round bones in the middle), jujeh (Cornish hen glowing bright yellow), and salmon (a pair of skewers thickly crusted with spices, predominantly sumac). The menu includes a couple of Persian-influenced stews, notably one made with beef, split peas, and diminutive dried lemons that sounds better than it tastes. There’s also a superb fried fish entrée ($9.50) described on the menu as “Michigan white fish.” Get it with green rice rather than the limp fries.
Located on a ridge dramatically overlooking the LIE, Ali Baba is ideally located to snag families as they ply Long Island’s Silk Road, instead of the cabbie clientele most outer-borough Afghan restaurants attract. One problem faced by a restaurant with these aspirations is the necessity of satisfying the appetites of children, who often eschew the ethnic food of their parents. Resolved to combat the “Drop me off at McDonald’s” syndrome, and probably to attract non-Afghan diners as well, Ali Baba has interlarded its menu with some old American favorites, such as buffalo chicken wings, fish and chips, and burgers. Inevitably, when domestic dishes infiltrate the menu, certain foods tend to disappear. At Ali Baba, the bill of fare is sadly missing the homemade noodles and pumpkin-stuffed turnovers we’ve come to expect at joints like Speengar and Bahar Shishkebab House.
As compensation, Ali Baba mounts its own Philly cheese steak. It comes confined in aluminum foil, with little jets of steam issuing from the crinkles. As an avid fan of cheese steaks, I held my breath as I ripped the foil. The crusty hero was piled high with the requisite thin-sliced steak, into which melted American cheese had fully penetrated, and there was a further layering of tomatoes and mayo-slicked lettuce, too. One bite and I was hooked. By Philadelphia standards, it was better than Pat’s King of Steaks. And though it wasn’t quite as good as Tony Luke’s, it beats driving the Silk Road down to Philly.