Return to Ali Baba (review)
I used to frequent Ali Baba when it was a pizza place that happened to also serve Turkish food. This was my first visit to the restaurant in its current incarnation, and I was completely disoriented by the fancy tapestries and uniformed waiters. They haven’t totally lost touch with their proletarian roots – the napkins and placemats are paper – but it’s a world away from the hole-in-the-wall I remember.
Fortunately, the lahmacun haven’t changed a bit. Between the tricks of memory, and the tendency of restaurants to go downhill over time, it’s always a gift when something tastes exactly the way you remembered it. After multiple disappointing lahmacun in the Bay Area, I’d started to wonder if I was actually romanticizing the Ali Baba lahmacun, but no – it really is that good. The lamb was perfectly seasoned, finely ground to a silky texture. The pizza parlor pedigree showed in the crust, blistered and charred, with enough elasticity to not crack when the flatbread was folded in half, with slices of tomato, raw onion, and cilantro inside.
I also ordered the manti, which I had not had at Ali Baba before. These were good – the marble-sized lamb dumplings had a satisfyingly chewy texture and were dressed with warm yogurt and a drizzle of tomato-based sauce, with dried mint and sumac sprinkled decoratively over the top. I prefer a butter and chili sauce (Sahara East used to have a great version, although the recent terrible reviews on Yelp dissuaded me from chasing after that taste memory), and more mint (the dumplings tasted flat until I hit a spoonful with mint, and the decorative sprinkling wasn't quite enough to distribute over the whole dish). They weren't good enough to inspire longing from the other coast the way the lahmacun were, but that's a lot to ask... I'm just grateful that the lahmacun lived up to my memory of them.
Pic 1: Lahmacun
Pic 2: Manti
Ali Baba Turkish Cuisine
212 E 34th St, New York, NY 10016
Ali Baba's current location is a few doors down from where it used to be. I wouldn't describe the current decor as "fancy," but it is way more attractive than the previous place, which had all the charm of a, well, pizza joint. For some mysterious reason, they stop serving the lahmacun after a certain time in the evening. So, the last time we had dinner there, we arrived past that hour, and I was sorely disappointed not to be able to order it.
We recently had dinner for the first time at Uskudar, on 2nd Av., b/t 73rd & 74th Sts. Their lahmacun is delicious, and the rest of the food is not too shabby either. It's a tiny place, about a half dozen or so tables, with charming decor. The next time you're in NYC, I recommend you try it.
Thanks... now I'm getting ideas about doing a Manhattan lahmacun crawl... do you think Uskudar would be ok with someone just dropping in for an order of lahmacun? One of the things I loved about the old Ali Baba is that I wouldn't feel self-conscious about doing that at all... at the new Ali Baba, I'd be a little uncomfortable (I'll still probably do it, though). I always swing through the UES to pick up wildflower honey from Agata and Valentino, so I'll definitely stick Uskudar on my next itinerary.
We just had dinner from Ali Baba. I picked up some Doner Sandwiches, hummus and eggplant in tomato sauce. It was all terrific. We usually get our Doner fix from Taksim but, about a year ago they switched their sandwiches from Turkish pide bread to oversized tortillas. No matter what I do I can't get them to go back to the bread, even as an option, even if I pay more. And, the price there has gone up to $9 a sandwich. Alternatively, we really like Sip Sak but, they stopped making sandwiches all together about a year ago, though their Moussaka is great.
Anyway, the hummus was excellent from Ali Baba. Creamy, good taste, not too garlicky. Way better than Taksim. Eggplant very good, maybe it could have been a bit spicier. The Doners were great, meat well cooked and they were very big, served on Turkish rolls. They also sent a good size container of Cacik for the sandwiches. That was actually outstanding. Just great.
For what its worth, Ali Baba is apparently opening a new large spot on Second Ave and about 46th street, I've passed it under construction and the Ali Baba menu now says it is "coming soon." We'll have to see how it is. And, the menu also says they own Turkish Grill in Sunnyside, something I never knew.
Ironically, I hadn't been back to Ali Baba in who knows how many years. The last time I was there was when they first opened - as a pizzeria. What a difference. Between them and Pio Pio right next door that block is like a little bit of Queens in Manhattan.