By Eric Asimov
From outside its humble storefront near the Queens-Midtown Tunnel, Ali Baba looks like another shabby pizza place. But inside, beyond the display of pizza slices, is a trove of Turkish street snacks centering on freshly baked Turkish breads. One of those snacks, Lahmajun, has actually been called Turkish pizza. The warm flat bread, topped with savory ground lamb, onions and chopped tomatoes, is brightened with lemon juice. Eat it quickly or it loses its crispness, though it will remain tasty. The same is true of pide(pronounced PEA-day), a thick dough the size of a small torpedo stuffed with tangy ground lamb or other fillings, from cheese to sausage. Ali Baba also serves more conventional fare, like a sparkling array of dips and spreads with puffy bread, and the usual chops and kebabs.
The highlight at this midtown stalwart is the divine yogurtlu kebabs, juicy lamb served with a tangy tomato, garlic and yogurt sauce. Kebabs are accompanied by rice, pickled cabbage, spiced red onion and a fiery, charred fresh chili. Cool it by downing a glass of salgam, a tart red carrot juice not often found outside Turkey. Warm homemade pide (flatbread with black and white sesame seeds) partners perfectly with labna (a thick yogurt dip of walnuts, garlic and dill) or with piyaz (white beans and onion dressed in a zippy lemon vinaigrette).
Most Ottoman restaurants fall into one of two categories: fast-food kebab shack or sit-down fancy place. Ali Baba bridges the gap. Visit the front of the restaurant for casual dining and carryout, where you can get a fiery ezme salad on a pita, or pizza-style pides festooned with ground lamb, Turkish pastrami, feta, or potatoes. Or venture further inside to the starchy formal dining room—a perfect date spot—and enjoy lamb, lamb, and more lamb, from a list that runs to yogurt-gobbed doner, flame-grilled chops, and, best of all, beyti kebabs wrapped in flatbread and sauced with yogurt, tomato, and garlic.
By Joseph O’neill
Marooned on the fervid islands of New York this summer, the Underground Gourmet had to content himself with palatal travel—i.e., inserting exotic food into his mouth, closing his eyes, and allowing himself to be transported, in a vehicle of odors and flavors, to his favorite vacation spots of yesteryear. This has, inevitably and bittersweetly, meant returning to his mother’s homeland, Turkey, and to the bereaved city of Istanbul, where boatmen in crazily tilting barks steadfastly serve up what may be the most alluring sandwich in the world: a half-bread loaf crammed with grilled, lemon-drizzled peppers and tomatoes and fish freshly netted in the Sea of Marmara.
This particular feast is unobtainable in New York, but at Ali Baba Restaurant (206 East 34th Street; 212-683-9206), there are plenty of other good things authentically evocative of Turkey. Ali Baba—which opened six months ago—is aptly named, because it is about as bafflingly impenetrable as Ali Baba’s cave. Giving every appearance of a cheapo Italian fast-food joint, its front section consists of a busy counter serving up pizzas, heroes, and calzones (mainly to go) under garish, tube-lit photographs of same. Keep going, however, and you come to a genteel grotto in which bouquets of pink and red silk roses, complete with eternally fixed droplets of dew, sit on gray plastic tablecloths. Here, some sparse wall decorations—a row of fezzes, an evil eye, a painted plate—and the unfeigned warmth of the waitress signal that you have stumbled upon a Turkish zone. After a mouthful of Turkish olives and warm, home-baked, sesame flat bread, all thoughts of Italy, however pleasant, are banished.
That said, Ali Baba’s forte lies in its masterly lahmacuns and pides—appropriately enough, Turkey’s answer to the pizza. The lahmacun—flat bread topped with ground lamb and a subtle sprinkling of chopped vegetables ($2.25)—is larger than what you might see in Turkey, but it comes with an appropriate bunch of flat-leaf parsley and freshly chopped, cayenne-peppered onions: You pile these on the bread, squeeze on the juice of a quarter-lemon, and roll up the ensemble into a delicious spliff. For an even more substantial feed, try a kaskaval ($6) or a kusbasili pide ($8): The former is a dill-sharpened affair of feta cheese, parsley, eggs, and butter; the latter is spicy chopped baby lamb with peppers and parsley. Both are excellent.
Ali Babi handles the classic fruit of Turkish cuisine—the mutable, multiform eggplant—very well. The imam bayildi ($4.50, named for the Islamic cleric who passed out with pleasure upon eating this aubergine stuffed with onions, tomatoes, and spices) is good (although the eggplant was not quite babyish enough); baba ghannouj ($3) could be a tad smokier; and deep-fried eggplant with a yogurt sauce ($3.50) and eggplant in a nearly spicy sauce of fresh vegetables ($3) are respectable.
The heavy-hitting meat dishes are all expertly handled. Marinated chicken kebab ($8) is tender and succulent; Adana kebab (ground lamb packed around a skewer and grilled, $8) is spicily redolent of the Cilician city for which it is named; shish kebab ($9) is simply terrific; and iskender kebab (slices of excellent, non-oily doner kebab served over fried pide bread in a tomato sauce and lashings of fresh yogurt, $11) is the Turkish ticket. All entrées are accompanied by white rice, homemade bread, salad, grilled green peppers (hot), and grilled tomato (fruity).
Ali Baba is located in the former venue of an Italian restaurant, hence the front of the house, which caters to customers of the old business. This is an unusual and risky arrangement, but somehow the two cuisines live side by side in harmony. With Turkish food of this uncompromising quality, why shouldn’t they?
Ali Baba is open seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. All credit cards accepted.