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Mar 1, 2002 08:21 AM

Kabab Cafe-Thoroughly Terrible Food

  • m

It is complety amazing that so many folks continue to
rave about the crudely executed junk at this Chowhound temple.

On two recent visits, we had fizzy (as in fermenting and over the hill) baba ganoush, kofta made with unwashed parsley that gave it a certain crunch reminiscent of eating sand, sauteed beef made with halal meat the quality of which was on a par with the Sizzler, and not nearly as tender, lamb shanks reheated out of the fridge, and a "soup" of dirty escarole.

On both occasions the place was packed with sycophantic
Ali worshippers, who I believe must be turning a blind eye (or palate) to the godawful grub he's making. Yeah, it's a place I'd love to love, but the emperor has no clothes, or is at least trying to get away with sub-par ingredients and lots of cut corners.

I know that this place is a cult favorite, but the food stinks.

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  1. m
    Molly Symmonds

    "On two recent visits..."

    If this was your experience, why did you return?

    Ali's cuisine is perhaps not worthy of four tines (though I recently enjoyed fizz-free baba there, as well as other fine fare), but I daresay that a warmer welcome could not be found in any of our fair city's five boroughs.

    You are of course entitled to your opinion, but you seem to be courting an arugment with your peevish tone: "godawful grub," "crudely-executed junk."
    Why post such a rant? Isn't Chowhound a network for sharing the places we enjoy most?

    My $.02,

    15 Replies
    1. re: Molly Symmonds

      I like Kabab Cafe as much as anyone (in fact, I was the first to write about them, years ago in NY Press), but a few comments...

      "If this was your experience, why did you return?"

      gosh, if this isn't "damned-if-you do, damned-if-you-don't", I don't know what is! Consider: if Marty had gone only once, we'd have all told him to try again!

      Furthermore, we very BADLY need negative reviews here (especially ones that carefully give evidence for their judgements, rather than an unuseful "it stinks" smear). We need balance, so readers-along can have a rich diversity of opinion to draw on.

      FWIW, I think Ali's food IS, occasionally, four-tines good. Usually it's just good. And sometimes it's fair to lousy (per Marty's posting). Ali's a creative guy, he has ups and downs.


      1. re: Jim Leff
        Marty Strasser

        Jim, thanks for your encouragement. Let me clarify and rave just a bit more.

        I went to Kabab Cafe the first time based on numerous good words here at Chowhound and elsewhere. I went back the second time because I thought the lousy food the first time was an abberation.

        Believe me, I wish I had had the heavenly baba I'd heard about. There are other NYC places I've cherished
        for many many years that I had to finally acknowledge just weren't happening. So my perspective is, I hope, an honest one. And it was simply incredible to me that the place was packed with people who seemed to be thoroughly enjoying some of the same things I was unable to finish. And I was with my girlfriend, so our
        sample size, as they say, was times two.

        I try to keep a very, very open eye and mouth for great new things to eat, as do I suspect the majority of people who post here. But there's also the whole notion of the "downhill alert", Jim's own phrase. Part of that, I think, is the necessity to call fizzy baba fizzy baba and not delude one's self. I know it must be tough to separate Ali's obvious joie de being a cafe host from the food, but that's just the way it is sometimes.

        1. re: Marty Strasser

          Understood, agreed, and I wasn't questioning your honesty.

          But it's not downhill, you just caught it in a dip. And I totally sympathize that a bad meal's a bad meal, regardless if it's an off-night, a low point on a wobbly cycle, or symptomatic of a steady fall from grandeur. I'm truly sorry you shlepped twice for nothing.

          This is one of my favorite restaurants...but I've had a few meals there like you described, too (which is why I put a SERIOUS caution about variability in the review of them in my book). You were really really unlucky.

          It's a "process" kind of restaurant...most of the customers are regulars, many come several times/week. Jay Leno's a funny guy; after a few years you give him benefit of the doubt even when his monologue tanks. You laugh at the near-misses, because you know/trust what he was going for. Kabab Cafe is a place most of its customers consider in the long view. It's truly a neighborhood spot (though lots of people--including our own Dave Feldman--come here from far-away nabes).

          It's not just about his charm, either, though I'd think the exact same thing if I were you. If one had never had one of his great creations, one would think that was the source of the flash. Your chowhounding instincts are dead-on right, were just unlucky.

          Others will be unlucky as well. Once again, readers along: exercise caution in visiting this place! Do NOT expect a sure thing!


          1. re: Jim Leff
            Marty Strasser

            But, Jim, you missed one of my main points. Sand in one's kofta should send anyone and everyone around the moon. But the place was packed with people eating that(and other things) that I also had that night, and several were audibly and visibly raving about how good everything was. (It's a real small place). What's up with that?

            1. re: Marty Strasser
              Nina Wugmeister


              I think the answer is simply that different people have different standards and different criteria. Think of all the people that rave about John's Pizza, and then all the people who think it's a bunch of rubber on burned matzoh - and on Chowhound even! Also, I think it's sometimes easy to get carried away by Ali's charm, and the atmosphere, and be somewhat unobjective about the food. I know it's happened to me a few times there.

              I've been to Kabab Cafe about 10 times in the last 4 weeks, and I've had some fantastic food, and some just okay food, but nothing I could possibly describe as "bad." I've noticed in particular that the standard menu items are usually not as good as the things he has as specials on most nights. And if you ask him for specific things before you come, those things seem to always be good, probably, I assume, because he's paying special attention.

              I would only encourage you to try again and again, if you have the patience, because when he's good, he's reallllly good. And ya gotta admit, it's a great place to spend an evening...

              1. re: Nina Wugmeister

                Not necessarily a question of differing taste. I love kabab cafe and I agree with every word Marty said...on a bad night. And Ali indeed has his bad nights.

                If, like, me (and apparently you), Marty had hit this place first on a great night, he'd be a lot more forgiving. But considering the point in the curve he walked in on, I can't fault his impression/opinon one bit.

                And he did the right thing; he went a second all I can do is wince and apologize. I love to steer people to good food, not bad. I feel just awful when this sort of thing happens.


                1. re: Jim Leff
                  Marty Strasser

                  No need to apologize. And taste is sure a funny thing.
                  To be honest with you, I probably will go back some lazy Saturday afternoon and try again. And I'll be looking for that ultimate baba maybe somewhere else, too.

                  1. re: Marty Strasser
                    Nina Wugmeister

                    I think the baba at Waterfalls (on Atlantic Ave.) is divine (and consistent). Give it a shot.

                    1. re: Nina Wugmeister

                      I agree with you that the baba at Waterfall is divine (and consistent). But the baba I had last week at (my first) Kabab Cafe visit was a revelation, a totally different animal entirely than any other baba I've ever consumed. Really.

                      1. re: Peter Cuce

                        Sometimes he uses lime in place of lemon; that may have been the distinctive touch you noticed

                    2. re: Marty Strasser

                      I don't think our taste differs, FWIW. And your willingness to try yet again is very chowhoundish of you.

                      The following's completely unrelated, but it's my party and I'll digress if I want to.

                      I once had a pretentious awful empty meal, I forget where. I do a lot better with honestly bad food than with food that's cynically designed to impress without a whit of actual deliciousness, and I was in a pretty exasperated state as I drove down Second Avenue. My mind kept flashing on brownies, which just upset me further 'cuz NY is NOT a brownie town. No way to find brownies at 9pm on a Saturday night driving down Second Avenue (or very good ones at any other time).

                      And what do I pass? A place called Brownie Points. I pull to the side of the road, exultant. I run in. I see like 20 kinds of brownies--some varieties as pretentiously misguided as the food I'd eaten earlier. I ignore them, and order a plain fudge brownie. I take a bite. It's nothing.

                      I return the next night. I order a fudge walnut brownie. I take a bite. It's nothing.

                      I return the following week, try another plain fudge brownie. Nothing.

                      I tried the place at least half a dozen times. I simply couldn't believe anyone would open a place solely devoted to brownies--that someone would, essentially, dedicate his/her life to brownies--yet make lousy ones. And the miracle of the place's appearance at the height of my brownie craving was a non-ignorable omen. I just kept going over and over. The bad brownies had to be a mistake. It was like trying a bunch of combinations on an old lock.

                      I'm not suggesting you'll be similarly frustrated by repeated visits to Kabab Cafe. I'm just saying that hope springs eternal for hardcore chowhounds.


                      1. re: Marty Strasser

                        Two things:

                        1) If you are looking for GREAT baba, skip Ali's and go across the street (and up the block just a bit) to El Manara's bakery. They make the best baba I've ever had, and that includes samples from all over the middle east.

                        2) I basically agree with what's been said about Kabab Cafe. I live just a few blocks away (and have for years), but I don't go more often than once every few months, mainly because of the inconsistency. By the same token, however, I often take out-of-towners there, because it can be such a satisfying, cozy place, and because Ali is so charming.


                  2. re: Marty Strasser

                    Hey, I don't know who was there that night. But it's a tiny place, so a full dining room of, like, eight wouldn't be very representative of much of anything, I wouldn't think.

                    that said, I'm sure it felt pretty surrealistic to you.


                    1. re: Marty Strasser
                      Dave Feldman


                      I ate at Kabab Cafe tonight, and I probably eat there more than any restaurant in NYC.

                      I've had the best goat in my life at KC; tonight, I had lousy goat. Them's the breaks.

                      You seem to be making an assumption that everyone at the restaurant was eating the same food as you if they ordered the same dish. and thus were delusional if they enjoyed their grub. It isn't necessarily so. Even the staples at Ali's vary not just from day to day, but from person to person (how can one person make so many different hot sauces?). If Ali decides to make Winter baba, then you'll be enjoying yogurt instead of tahini. The potatoes never seem to be exactly the same twice; the amount of lemon in lemony dishes varies enormously.

                      I like this. It means I can go to KC, order the same dish as I did the week before and enjoy some of the thrill of discovery of eating a dish new to me.

                      You *really* had bad luck if the baba was foul, though. I've certainly never had "off" baba. But the only order I've found to be infallible is the hot beet salad.

                      I think Jim makes a crucial point. Ali has indeed built up a reservoir of goodwill among regulars, and they/we are willing to accept the occasional clunker. But it isn't because he has charmed the pants off of us (although he has), it's because he has fed us so much amazing food.

                2. re: Jim Leff

                  > I think Ali's food IS, occasionally, four-tines good.
                  > Usually it's just good. And sometimes it's fair to
                  > lousy [...]

                  Often, in my experience, all at once. Three recent

                  (1) Went with a friend and got foul (my standby at
                  places where it's offered) and, with some trepidation,
                  baba ganoush, which I've never liked. The foul was
                  okay. The baba was a revelation. I couldn't believe
                  something with such a perfect texture and amazing
                  balance of deep, delicious flavors sported the same
                  name as the baba ganoush I'd had in the past.

                  (2) Took my sweetheart to try the baba. We also got
                  foul and the Egyptian potato salad. The baba was not
                  very good -- the texture was off, kind of grainy, and
                  the flavors didn't seem to get along this time -- and
                  the foul was, again, good but not amazing. The
                  potatoes, though, were flat-out terrific, encrusted
                  with a great blend of spices and cooked just right.

                  (3) Got the potatoes and some foul to go. The potatoes
                  were not good at all: big unfriendly chunks, dressed in
                  a weak lemony sauce and nearly flavorless. But the
                  foul was incredible -- since I'd eaten the potatoes I
                  started in on the foul planning to take a taste and
                  save the rest till morning, but ended scarfing it all
                  down on the spot.

                  So, yeah, I give the Kabab Cafe pretty high marks
                  because while there seems to be about a 2-in-3 chance
                  that a given dish will be mediocre, the third one can
                  be just mindblowing.


              2. Marty, I'm a big fan of this restaurant (I was the first to write about them, about ten years ago), yet I'm not sure you and I are unsynchronized (and please understand that your negative posting was absolutely welcome here).

                First, I TOTALLY agree re: meat quality. Ali's charging a lot more these days, but still gets lousy meat, and that bugs me, too. But consider that while he ain't charging $8 for dinner anymore, neither is he charging at a level to use really good meat. But I couldn't agree more that he needs to use at least several notches better-quality meat.

                And I HATE that fizzy baba gounoush taste, I can just picture it. Yuck. On the other hand, 99% of the time his baba is second to none (with possible exception of Laila's in Brooklyn, which supplies the pre-packaged baba at Sahadi...and is ALSO made by a wildly inconsistent chef who must be caught on a good day to be appreciated).

                And, yes, Kababa Cafe is filled with admirers. But you've spun it the wrong way....they're not blindly fooled by a bad restaurant, they're forgiving of slip-ups in a very inconsistent restaurant. Ali's good days are tremendously good--every Kabab Cafe regular has eaten astonishing food there...and therefore is inclined to forgive the slip-ups. And slip-ups do occur. I'm sorry they occured to you. Let it serve as warning to others that this is not a sure-thing restaurant. But it can be a great restaurant.

                I'm very, very forgiving of anyone capable of miracles. Not everyone feels that way (esecially if they've entered the cycle at a dip!). And I try to make this clear in all my writings about this place.

                Thanks for posting; please post more.


                1. d
                  Daniel Sonenberg

                  I'm jumping into this thread a little late. I love Kabab, haven't been there recently though (low on $$$). I've had a couple of clunkers, and many great meals, as seems to be the case for everyone here. Ali also opened up one Monday night for me to have a private engagement party - that was memorable, and the food was great.

                  I've always found the mixed apps platter both delicious, and a little too expensive. Off hand I can't remember if the base price is $10 or $14, but I know each additional person tacks on another $4. Yes it must be $10, because going with three people makes the mixed apps $18. As delicious as they are (I've never been disappointed by the platter, and the baba in particular has always tasted divine to me), this seems like too much, and sometimes I find myself avoiding the platter just to keep the bill down.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Daniel Sonenberg

                    I had a very similar experience on my one visit there a few months ago. The platter was insanely good, lots of flavors coming through. Loved the falafel too. But it was pricey, and our entrees were pretty disappointing, especially the goat, which was quite tough. It was a fun experience overall, but I'm not sure I'm going to rush back to drop that kind of cash on such an uneven meal.

                  2. The original comment has been removed
                    1. I would say the same about another chowhound favorite: Spicy Mina's. The slop that i have gotten there was not to be believed. I had one extremely good meal there, another which was good-not-great, and many HORRIBLE ones.