TASTE: Middle East Eats – Ali Baba’s Lebanese cuisine deserves to be experienced
Jan. 4 – Jan. 10, 2007
TASTE: Middle East Eats
Ali Baba’s Lebanese cuisine deserves to be experienced
By Max Jacobson
Ali Baba 8826 S. Eastern Ave., 688-4182. Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday; until 1 a.m. Friday-Sunday. Suggested dishes: makdous, $6; shankleesh, $7; kibbeh balls, $7; quail appetizer, $12; Sultan Ibrahim, $18; mamoul, $6. Photo by Iris Dumuk
Ali Baba is the most ambitious Lebanese restaurant to open here since Leyla at the MGM Grand, and here’s hoping it experiences a better fate. Lebanese cuisine, along with Turkish, is the pride of its region. It’s also vastly underappreciated in this country, unless you happen to live in New York or Los Angeles.
Leyla, run by a Lebanese company called Idarat, served fancy dishes such as raw lamb mixed with bulgur wheat, shrimp wrapped in shredded wheat crusts, and delicious fish preparations. Unfortunately, it was ahead of its time and eventually replaced by Michael Mina’s Seablue.
Ali Baba may be location-challenged as well. It’s next to Colonnade Cinemas, in a minimall on the corner of Eastern and Pebble. This mall, incidentally, is no stranger to good eating. A few choices here are the Cuban café Havana Grill; Jun’s, a Korean lunch spot; and Vegas Diner, traditional American fare in a retro setting.
But this newest addition is the mall’s unquestioned star, an alabaster and gold palace with gaudy columns, dreamlike murals and tables draped in red and gold. At least a dozen Tiffany lamps hang suspended from the crimson-hued ceiling. Tables are set with glass bottles topped with green spouts, which hold the extra virgin olive oil that you will mix with your complimentary dish of za-atar, thyme and other herbs tossed with toasted sesame seeds, which you eat smeared on rounds of puffy pita bread.
I like to come here for a quiet lunch, when the only sounds are soft Arabic-language music videos playing on one of the restaurant’s plasma-screens. It’s more rousing in the evening, thanks to a live band that performs nightly, plus actual belly dancers.
The glory of Lebanese cuisine is mezze, hot and cold appetizers that fill the table when Lebanese people have any say in the matter. Ali Baba serves almost 30 of them, not just the usual hummus, tabbouleh and baba ghannouj, but creative, delicious dishes you won’t find anywhere else in the city.
From the cold side, try makdous, pickled eggplant stuffed with walnuts and garlic; or shankleesh, aged white cheese mixed with oregano, sumac leaves, sesame seeds, onions, tomatoes, parsley and olive oil.
I love fattoush, a lemony salad of Romaine lettuce, cucumber, tomato, mint and garlic, tossed with crunchy pita croutons. Kibbeh nayya is made with beef here, instead of the traditional lamb. It’s the Lebanese version of steak tartare, and irresistible.
The hot appetizers are even harder to resist. Kibbeh are fried balls of cracked wheat mixed with ground meat, filled with more ground meat and pine nuts. There are more than a dozen other choices, such as makanek, clove-scented sausages sautéed with tomatoes and onions; or sojouk, a spicier version; lahim bei ajin, little meat pies studded with pine nuts (they’re big on pine nuts here); or broiled quail, a pair of whole birds redolent of garlic, lemon juice, olive oil and cilantro, all quite Mediterranean.
I’m content just to make a meal of mezze, but there are a slew of main dishes I like, too. All the kabobs are marinated and taste it, and there are a few stir-fries, made from spicy chicken, lamb and salmon, all good with the rice and lentil pilaf they are served with. Save room for Sultan Ibrahim, deep-fried or char-grilled mullet served with French fries and tartar sauce.
For lunch, try the shawarma sandwich, a combination of lamb and beef seasoned and cooked on a vertical broiler, two sandwiches wrapped in pita bread and wax paper, each stuffed with tahini sauce, onions, tomato and pickled vegetables. Served with spiced fries and a dish of olives and beets, this may be, at $6, the best deal in Henderson.
Let’s not neglect the desserts, even if only a few of them are made every day. If they have kuneifi, don’t miss it. It’s a flaky pastry filled with a hot, sweet cheese drenched with honeyed syrup, one of the most sensual desserts in all of the Middle East. Naturally there is baklava, a tender version overflowing with minced pistachios and walnuts, although I prefer mine without the rosewater perfumes of these. I am, though, a sucker for these homemade mamoul, rich, buttery cookies filled with a choice of date, pistachio or walnut, the perfect complement to a muddy java, Arab-style.