Hours: Sunday through Thursday, noon till 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, noon till midnight. Prices: Dinner appetizers, $2.50-4.95; entrees $5.95-12.95. Cards: American Express, Diner's Club, MasterCard, Visa.
Although the original Ali Baba had only limited culinary experience -- the 40 olive oil urns the thieves hid in were empty, and talking sesame isn't eating it -- this Ali Baba's may turn the tables. Working from an Adams-Morgan cave (an unseen basement kitchen), this Middle Eastern eatery is a minor treasure.
The appetizer list, for example, which fills half of the menu, includes dependable versions of all the old standbys that have made Mamma Ayesha and the Iron Gate Inn such favorites: hummus, that vichysoisse of garbanzo beans; tabouleh, the parsley and cracked-wheat salad; stuffed grape leaves, and baba ganouj, eggplant gone exotic.
But Ali Baba's goes further, to a kibbeh (ground meat, cracked wheat and pignoli) hot-fried like an Arabian hush puppy and dipped in tangy tahini sauce; a super kibbeh, dressed up with minced filet mignon for the fastidious; spinach or meat pastries; cold lentil puree or hot fava beans tossed with lemon and olive oil.
Even better, Ali Baba offers fresh organ meats, lamb kidneys or sweetbreads, sauteed simply and superlatively in butter and lemon. Either would be rich enough to serve as a light entree; both are far too seductive.
It seems an excess of blessings, but Ali Baba's is one of the handful of Middle Eastern restaurants in the area to offer a dinner's worth of mini-servings running the appetizer gamut. A "small maza" platter costs $27.95, a large one $49.95, and it might serve as a gustatory graduate seminar for diners who don't have a thousand nights to spend.
Pita bread, exceptionally light and fresh, a "Forty Thieves Salad" and sharp, marinated olives are included in every meal. After that, a breather is essential -- and, in any case, inevitable, since the dish-at-a-time cooking goes slowly even when the restaurant is nearly empty.
But the wait is worth it. Shawarma, tiny chunked and shredded lamb (or beef) marinated in wine and cardamon, is intensely flavored.
Ouzi, stuffed lamb baked to melting and flavored with almonds and pignoli, is almost too rich to believe. (Incidentally, although the lunch menu has the same dishes priced lower, the portions are just as generous.) Couscous here is a slightly reserved preparation, compared to some of the tureens around town, but the shanks and veggies are perfectly cooked and the steamed grains delicious. Broiled marinated chicken, which though it sounds simple is often dry and disappointing, is state-of-the-charcoal here.
Ali Baba's offers other kebabs, of course -- beef or lamb or minced meat patties (kafta kebab) -- and true fans may order the special combination for two, $22.95), which includes the chicken, kafta and beef or lamb.
There are also, inevitably, the Ali Baba-Burger ("exotic Middle-Eastern hamburger") and Ali Baba steak; but with the Riz Bil Djaj (stuffed chicken a la ouzi) and baked kibbeh (a ground meat and cracked wheat casserole with stewed vegetables) to be had, not even the timid need fall back on the burger.
Ali Baba's is willing to arrange a special menu in advance for a private party, or cater it, even throwing in an ecdysiastical Scheherezade or two.