Ali Baba’s Mediterranean Cuisine
210-B Newbury Road
One of my favorite (and one of the healthiest) world cuisines is Middle Eastern food. We in the West tend to break this style of cooking into Persian, Israeli, Turkish and Lebanese. Of course, each country in this region has its own unique style and flavors, and in Ventura County there are not a lot of dining choices in this genre from which to select. One continuous standby for me is tucked away in a strip mall in Newbury Park: Ali Baba’s Mediterranean Kitchen.
Owner /Chef Khalil Salah grew up in a small village near Bethlehem, and began his hospitality career with Marriott Hotels. In the early ’80s Khalil moved to the United States and worked in many aspects of the food industry. Finally, in 2000, he decided to open his own restaurant in Newbury Park, and today he and his family serve some of the most home-style “mom and pop” Middle Eastern offerings locally available.
Even the appetizers and sides reflect Salah’s Palestinian origins: moutabal, which is a roasted eggplant dip with sesame and lemon juice (in other cultures called baba ganoush), is airy and light and gives one’s tastebuds a hint of the flavor combinations to come throughout the meal. There are stuffed grape leaves with exotically flavored rice and herbs (I savor the blending of lemon, olive oil, allspice and pepper); hummus with tahini, sautéed vegetables and, of course, the peripatetic Middle Eastern pickles (turnips fermented in red beet juice with onions and garlic), with black and green olives and spicy Persian cucumbers.
All of the above-mentioned foodstuffs are hand-made and reflect Salah’s strong ties to the cuisine of his childhood. Salads as well give a unique twist to some familiar combinations. Of course there is a savory tabbouleh (cracked wheat with chopped parsley tomato, cucumber, onion and mint), and Baba’s salad is simply chopped Romaine, tomato, cucumber with a lemon juice, red-wine vinegar and olive oil dressing. This is an unadorned and simple salad and the dressing mixture is slightly acidic and tart, which is appropriate as an accompaniment to many of the main courses. Also, there is the Horiatiki, a Greek version of the Baba with the addition of kalamata olives and feta cheese, which can also be served topped with salmon, chicken or beef shawarma (specially grilled meats).
The main courses are hearty and certainly stand on their own without the need for starters, but the entire culinary experience is aided by a blending of all these flavors and textures. I am very fond of the roasted leg of lamb. (Although here I wish it were served rarer. The Middle Eastern-style of cooking seals in the juices for moistness.) The flavor is melt-in-your-mouth delicious, and demonstrates the succulence of this style of cookery. One of my favorite main courses here is the ful medames, an Egyptian dish that is basically simply stewed fava beans with olive oil, tomatoes, lemon juice, cumin, garlic and cayenne pepper. This dish is a very hearty and filling dish, aromatic and subtly complex.
Not too long ago the evening’s special was lamb kidra, Salah’s version of the noted Palestinian stew/soup based on lamb drippings and juice (from the lamb kebab and roasted leg) blended with puréed garbanzo beans (or white lentils) and rice. I love this dish and made the mistake of ordering a bowl rather than a cup; it is so rich I wound up taking home a to-go container for the next day’s breakfast. There are also curries, kebabs, koftehs (basically a Palestinian version of falafel), and my vegetarian friend is particularly fond of Salah’s vegetarian moussaka.
In my allotted space it would be impossible to describe accurately such a large and varied menu. Regardless of what selections you decide upon, however, make sure you save room at the end of your meal for the baklava, handmade by Salah’s wife: The layers of flaky pastry combined with nuts, spices and honey give your Middle Eastern meal the perfect finish. Unless, of course, you are like me and also order the Turkish coffee; poured from an individual carafe, this thick, sweet and also bitter delicacy is the ideal culmination after a meal at Ali Baba’s Mediterranean Cuisine.