By Philip Poston
By Jonathan Shikes
By Noah Reynolds
By Gretchen Kurtz
By Kate Gibbson
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Patricia Calhoun
About twenty minutes into our first meal at Ali Baba Grill, I leaned across the table and whispered to Laura, "What's the big deal? I just don't get it."
109 Rubey Drive #F
Golden, CO 80403
Region: West Denver Suburbs
8800 S. Colorado Blvd.
Littleton, CO 80126
Region: Southeast Denver Suburbs
5380 S. Greenwood Plaza Blvd.
Englewood, CO 80111
Region: Southeast Denver Suburbs
For years, we'd heard glowing endorsements of this little Middle Eastern restaurant in a Golden strip mall from people who refuse to eat their baillila, hummus or muhamara anywhere else; had gotten recommendations from friends and trusted fellow travelers who drive here from Aurora or Centennial two or three times a week. And the parts of Ali Baba's walls that weren't covered with art of Persian and Syrian influence were full of awards and mash notes from just about anyone who's figured out how to work with a fork in one hand and a pen in the other.
"This," I said, giving a flicking, dismissive gesture to everything on our table, all the stuff that we'd been pushing around, trying to make it look like the food had been eaten and enjoyed when, in fact, it had been neither. "This is not good at all."
We were approaching the midpoint of the meal and had already poked disconsolately at the house's free pita and hummus (overdosed with dusty paprika and missing that cutting edge of something — lemon juice, sumac powder, powerful olive oil — capable of razoring through the humping blandness of chickpea purée); an order of cheese sambusek with feta, egg, lemon juice and dry herbs wrapped in wonton skins and fried that was wrong in more ways than I could count (but beginning with the fact that they'd been made with wonton skins rather than pastry dough, and ending with the wonton skins having been improperly sealed so that all the filling had leaked out into the oil, leaving us with a plate of nothing but puffed and crispy wonton skins filled with feta-scented air); a couple of salads, uncomposed and ugly; and a big bowl of French fries, ordered because, as any dedicated gastronaut can tell you, French fries are always better in Asian and Middle Eastern restaurants.
Why? Because some of the more authentic Middle Eastern restaurants use beef tallow in their fryers, resulting in fries that taste the way McDonald's fries used to, back before the Clown switched up his grease to the family of fats that remain solid at room temperature. Also, Middle Eastern (and Asian) restaurant cooks tend to keep their fryers cranked to flash temperature, tuning them high into the red, and since they don't rely on the fryers as heavily as cooks in more traditional restaurants do, they maintain that high temperature better. Low heat causes limp fries; high temp creates crispy. Simple line-dog math. And Ali Baba's fries were decent, even if they were just the bagged, frozen Sysco variety.
But the fries weren't enough to placate me. I was disappointed and a little pissed off, and as I tried to distract myself, fingering all the little tchotchkes and quote-unquote authentic Middle Eastern decor items scattered around the bi-level dining room, I happened to reach my hand into what appeared to be a lovely, antique brass coffeepot and pulled out a receipt from Cost Plus World Market.
A perfect metaphor. I showed the slip of paper to Laura, laughed a little, then quickly stuffed it back where I'd found it when I saw our waiter trudging up the half-flight of stairs, bringing on the mains. And with those everything changed.
Simple chicken kabobs, deeply marinated in strong olive oil, herbs and lemon, seared hot and marked with an expert quadrillage, spaced out on the stick with blistered slips of onion and bell pepper. More kabobs of beef, each tender chunk speared through the middle and touched with something sweet that tasted of honey and brown sugar. Grilled lamb chops, rubbed with garlic, salt and black pepper, redolent of saffron. A thick lamb curry that had been cooked so long and slow that the lamb almost melted on my tongue. With each new bite, we suddenly understood why people become so addicted to this place. This, finally, was good.
Ali Baba is a Lebanese restaurant, a Persian restaurant, a Mediterranean restaurant with hints of Syrian and Saudi Arabian modernity and haute cuisine hiding in the strangest places. It is owned by two veterans of the international scene. Chef Fiyahd Aoutabachi was born in Syria, spent a decade cooking in Saudi Arabia and finally came to Denver to open La Zeez on Colorado Boulevard. When he sold La Zeez, he took one of his guys with him: Mahmoud Dukmak, a pro with a long Colorado resumé and front-of-the-house roots that stretch back to Lebanon and Syria. The partners opened Ali Baba back in 2000, and since then have shopped for their ingredients every morning, have prepped and presented their dishes fresh every day. In essence, Ali Baba is a Middle Eastern restaurant run in the green-market style: daily shopping, daily prep, and always a fresh start tomorrow.
If you order right and in opposition to common restaurant sense, all of this comes through.
But on our first visit, Laura and I ordered wrong. Which meant we sat there, pushing around our appetizers and wondering what all the fuss was about until the meats started arriving, until the really excellent followed the really rather bad.