Ali Baba Grill
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."
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.
How do you order right? I wish the answer were as simple as saying, "Order the simple stuff, forget the complicated," or the reverse, "Order the authentic, the difficult to pronounce, and ignore the rest." But at Ali Baba, it's not that easy. This place has a learning curve, requires a commitment of trust and time while, through a period of trial and error, you find the things that are done better here, done different here, done only here.
The lamb curry reminded me a little of the sweet-and-smoky Pakistani curry I'd occasionally have at a tiny dump of a place in New York that catered mostly to adventurous college kids and off-duty restaurant crews with a few drinks in 'em. Spooned over pointy, stiff white rice, it tasted of paprika, strong winter spices, tomato and onions cooked so long and with such delicacy that they'd become like a dream of onions, nothing more. It tasted like goulash gravy that'd been sitting a day or two, like the kind of heavy, thick comfort that's been chased by generations of cooks across a dozen countries, and like nothing else I've tasted anywhere in Colorado.
When Laura and I returned, we screwed up again, ordering the marinated fava beans (dull, and not nearly as well done as Indian channa chat or the big bowls of baillila you find at other Middle Eastern restaurants) and spinach sambusek because it seemed more interesting than the cheese version, with crushed walnuts, onion and pomegranate sauce. This time, the filling managed to stay inside the wonton skin, but it was still just boring stuff wrapped up in a wonton skin, like a Middle Eastern version of a Totino's pizza roll without the pizza. We also ordered quail and expected the standard (and generally nearly inedible) stuffed quail with its tough meat and crunchy little bones. But again we were surprised. The quail looked rather like a small chicken after an unfortunate run-in with a tractor trailer, but it tasted like heaven. It was a boned-out bird, hammered flat, pounded tender, marinated in garlic, basil, lemon juice and crushed saffron threads, showered with competing but never acrimonious spices, and grilled the way I remember a Vietnamese restaurant in Albuquerque grilling farmed field mice: gutted, smashed flat and cooked quickly over blazing, smoky coals. The quail was crisp on the outside, tender in the center, too reminiscent for Laura of the creature it had been before it became dinner, perfect for me. I ate everything but the tiny leg bones, stripping the meat with my teeth and pretending I was a fairy-tale giant.
Third time should have been a charm, but we still made some mistakes as we continued exploring the menu. We had more terrible hummus, lentil soup that was separated and tasted like someone in the kitchen had accidentally knocked an entire salt shaker into the pot, and kobideh that was like a Middle Eastern hamburger on a stick, jacked with overpowering spices and dry. But then we also had chicken shwarma, chopped from a whole bird cooked on the rotisserie, gently coddled with a hundred spices and served with a garlic paste so good that I got a second order to go and ate it in the car. And that was after I'd devoured a double order of baklava so heavy with butter and honey that the mixture could be sucked like a liquid from every bite.
There are restaurants where it's easy to eat — places where ordering dinner is like slipping into a warm bath after a couple of beers or eating in the kitchen of a close, rich and talented friend. And there are others where you know immediately that a meal will break the other way, offering horrors sauced with bitterness and dimwitted stupidity. And then there's that tiny minority of places that, for whatever reason, come off one minute like the most middling and commonplace of eateries, then come through the next to deliver something so wonderful that suddenly everything snaps into sharp focus and all those years of endorsements and recommendations start making sense.
Places like Ali Baba. After three meals there, the memories of good dishes far outweigh any reminders of the bad, bland and pointless. I can remember every bite of the simple kabob, which was better than it had a right to be; recall my poor, tiny, flat quail, so strange and delicious. But nothing about this restaurant made the joy easy to get to: I was just as likely to find a Cost Plus receipt as an authentic Middle Eastern preparation. I now understood why so many people rave about this place. But it took time, work, patience and a willingness to taste sambusek and hummus, fava beans and lentils, to hate what I tasted and to then move on — trusting that Aoutabachi, Dukmak and their crew had something better in store, listed just one slot down on the menu, sitting on the pass rail, waiting to be discovered.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.