Marooned on the fervid islands of New York this summer, the Underground Gourmet had to content himself with palatal travel – i.e., inserting exotic food into his mouth, closing his eyes, and allowing himself to be transported, in a vehicle of odors and flavors, to his favorite vacation spots of yesteryear. This has, inevitably and bittersweetly, meant returning to his mother’s homeland, Turkey, and to the bereaved city of Istanbul, where boatmen in crazily tilting barks steadfastly serve up what may be the most alluring sandwich in the world: a half-bread loaf crammed with grilled, lemon-drizzled peppers and tomatoes and fish freshly netted in the Sea of Marmara.
This particular feast is unobtainable in New York, but at Ali Baba Restaurant (206 East 34th Street; 212-683-9206), there are plenty of other good things authentically evocative of Turkey. Ali Baba – which opened six months ago – is aptly named, because it is about as bafflingly impenetrable as Ali Baba’s cave. Giving every appearance of a cheapo Italian fast-food joint, its front section consists of a busy counter serving up pizzas, heroes, and calzones (mainly to go) under garish, tube-lit photographs of same. Keep going, however, and you come to a genteel grotto in which bouquets of pink and red silk roses, complete with eternally fixed droplets of dew, sit on gray plastic tablecloths. Here, some sparse wall decorations – a row of fezzes, an evil eye, a painted plate – and the unfeigned warmth of the waitress signal that you have stumbled upon a Turkish zone. After a mouthful of Turkish olives and warm, home-baked, sesame flat bread, all thoughts of Italy, however pleasant, are banished.
That said, Ali Baba’s forte lies in its masterly lahmacuns and pides – appropriately enough, Turkey’s answer to the pizza. The lahmacun – flat bread topped with ground lamb and a subtle sprinkling of chopped vegetables ($2.25) – is larger than what you might see in Turkey, but it comes with an appropriate bunch of flat-leaf parsley and freshly chopped, cayenne-peppered onions: You pile these on the bread, squeeze on the juice of a quarter-lemon, and roll up the ensemble into a delicious spliff. For an even more substantial feed, try a kaskaval ($6) or a kusbasili pide ($8): The former is a dill-sharpened affair of feta cheese, parsley, eggs, and butter; the latter is spicy chopped baby lamb with peppers and parsley. Both are excellent.
Ali Babi handles the classic fruit of Turkish cuisine – the mutable, multiform eggplant – very well. The imam bayildi ($4.50, named for the Islamic cleric who passed out with pleasure upon eating this aubergine stuffed with onions, tomatoes, and spices) is good (although the eggplant was not quite babyish enough); baba ghannouj ($3) could be a tad smokier; and deep-fried eggplant with a yogurt sauce ($3.50) and eggplant in a nearly spicy sauce of fresh vegetables ($3) are respectable.
The heavy-hitting meat dishes are all expertly handled. Marinated chicken kebab ($8) is tender and succulent; Adana kebab (ground lamb packed around a skewer and grilled, $8) is spicily redolent of the Cilician city for which it is named; shish kebab ($9) is simply terrific; and iskender kebab (slices of excellent, non-oily doner kebab served over fried pide bread in a tomato sauce and lashings of fresh yogurt, $11) is the Turkish ticket. All entrées are accompanied by white rice, homemade bread, salad, grilled green peppers (hot), and grilled tomato (fruity).
Ali Baba is located in the former venue of an Italian restaurant, hence the front of the house, which caters to customers of the old business. This is an unusual and risky arrangement, but somehow the two cuisines live side by side in harmony. With Turkish food of this uncompromising quality, why shouldn’t they?
Ali Baba is open seven days a week from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. All credit cards accepted.
Another establishment of a dual personality but singular quality is Ali’s Roti Shop (1267 Fulton Street, Brooklyn; 718-783-0316). Half Trinidadian deli (selling imported Trini stuff like mango condiments, lime sauce, pepper sauce, and the Trinidad Guardian), half roti shop, this family-run restaurant is situated in a nook of Bed-Stuy that irresistibly brings Frederick Street, Port-of-Spain, to mind: a raucous mercantile scene of street vendors, shoppers, and dawdling cars blasting out music. Walking from the A-train stop at Nostrand and Fulton toward Ali’s Roti Shop – hurry, hurry, come for curry, Ali’s painted sign urges – you pass another roti outlet and a calypso-record store.
Ali’s – which has been featured in at least one calypso song – has a functional sprinkling of chairs and panes of security glass that guard the service counter. Service is nevertheless very friendly, and the booth banter between servers and customers – the latter significantly but by no means exclusively derived from Trinidad and Tobago – is constant. In true Trinidadian fashion, the best time to visit is around 5 p.m., when the maximum number of dishes are available.
Latecomers, though, can generally be assured of finding rotis ($4, except for goat roti, which is $4.50) that are superb. The chicken roti – served bones and all – is an immense wrap of tender chunks of meat with potatoes in curry sauce; the vegetable roti is a package of curried potato, chana (chickpeas), pumpkin, spinach, cabbage, and carrots, and fresh as you could wish for; tender goat roti is another triumph of meat and potatoes. Extra spiciness is available on demand.
The value for money here is outstanding. Phoolori (eight for $1) are balls of dough enlivened by a bittersweet tamarind sauce that is also to be found, in a slightly different form, in the stew fish, which is bony kingfish on rice with green plantain, ripe plantain, yam, pepper, tomato, and lentils. Homemade vegetable soup ($2.50) includes little dumplings, chunks of corn on the cob, and “ground provisions” – such as celery, plantains, peas, sweet yams, chives, and dasheen.
What really draws me to this place is not on the menu but is available on request. Trinidad’s most popular street food is doubles, which are fried, chewy discs of dough stuck together with a mild chickpea paste. A mouthful of doubles, washed down with a sip of licorice-tasting mauby juice (boiled down from tree bark with cloves and spices), and I am thousands of miles away, on another fervid island.
Ali’s Roti Shop opens at 11:30 a.m. and closes when the food runs out. Cash only.