Noting the stack of Styrofoam containers straining the seams of my white plastic take-out bag, the Uber driver who fetched me from Mount Pleasant nodded. “Your food smells good,” she said, falling back on what counts as polite cabbie conversation in a city without a professional sports team.
And then, one whiff later, she whipped her head around.
“Wait,” she spluttered. “You got that at the Harris Teeter?”
Not quite. The fragrant packages of broiled chicken, spiced lentils and sauteed lamb came from Ali Baba, nine doors down and, culinarily, 6,281 miles away. Experienced purely through the nose, Ali Baba’s dishes conjure an East Jerusalem household so convincingly that it’s nearly possible to tease out scents that have nothing to do with cooking. Here are the ancient odors of oils applied to carved wooden furniture, of bukhoor burned to perfume the living room.
Or maybe it’s just cumin and cardamom, sumac and cinnamon. In any case, it tastes terrific. Six years after opening, at around the same time as an unrelated Ali Baba opened on Daniel Island, chef Ismail Araj’s showplace has established itself as the source of some of the best Middle Eastern folk cuisine in the Charleston area.
When critics first started checking in on Ali Baba, they weren’t particularly impressed. City Paper’s Robert Moss mustered a “pleasant” when describing the kofta, but ultimately decided the restaurant was inferior to its crosstown namefellow. And The Post and Courier’s Deidre Schipani ruled that Ali Baba’s falafel couldn’t measure up to Lana chef John Ondo’s chickpea fritters. Word on the street was even harsher, with many patrons writing off the restaurant after a single disappointing visit: “Bland” and “tasteless” were popular adjectives with online reviewers.
The restaurant’s appearance hasn’t changed much since those early days: The straightforward dining room is still furnished with tables covered by protective vinyl, and the walls are still hung with fabric-bound depictions of pharaonic scenes. A bar functions as a mantle for imported knick-knacks and decorative hookahs, since Ali Baba doesn’t sell alcohol (although it does sell halva, olives and canned ful, displayed on shelves toward the back of the restaurant.)
Yet what has changed dramatically is what’s emerging from the kitchen, staffed on both my visits by an older woman wearing an embroidered abaya. Pictured on an illustrated menu, Ali Baba’s lineup of traditional dishes looks flat and dreary. But consider the full-color pamphlet your program for a veritable vaudeville show of elemental flavors, with bitter and sour taking top billing: They zip, they zing, they captivate.
Even a dish as seemingly prosaic as lentil soup has the ability to astound. To be sure, a squeeze of lemon is mandatory: The flush of acid discombobulates the earthy, yellow-green porridge, shaking free notes of garlic and turmeric. I scarred the roof of my mouth by imprudently barreling through a bowlful.
For the flash act, though, look to the hot sauce, which doesn’t automatically arrive with all of the dishes it flatters. It’s worth requesting a ramekin. There’s more glow than heat to the sheer red sauce. Its blend of chile peppers, tomatoes, eggplant and green peppers brims with brightness.
The sauce is especially well-suited to the falafel, which are of the exceptionally good variety that’s kind of above condiments. The rounded balls, flecked with sesame seeds and properly cooked through, are great with a smear of tahini or Ali Baba’s cool garlic yogurt sauce. But they probably couldn’t be ruined by ketchup or curry mayonnaise. Beautifully crisped, the falafel is built in refreshingly human proportions: If you cupped one hand, and rolled a bit of batter into it with the other, you’d come up with an orb just this size.
Cutting into the falafel reveals a chickpea canvas so green that you may wish to rethink your St. Patrick’s Day menu. Ali Baba doesn’t stint on parsley. The result is a snack that tastes fresher than some vegetables that haven’t had a run-in with hot oil.
Ali Baba serves falafel on an appetizer plate, alongside garlicky hummus and baba ganoush; on combination platters, finished with finely chopped tabouli and firm, stubby grape leaves; and as a side dish, priced at 75 cents per. But many customers are likely to ask for a falafel sandwich, which is among the few mistakes available for the making here. The pita bread is pretty bad, without any noticeable flavor or chew.
While the bread situation is a shame when there are salads for scooping, Ali Baba hasn’t exactly surrendered the starch game. Its curried rice is a standout in a region that knows something about rice preparation: The soft grains don’t stew or cling. Instead, the yellow-hued rice holds its own on plates anchored by elaborate entrees, such as braised lamb shanks and precisely spiced kebabs of ground lamb and beef.
The kofta kebabs are more exciting than the shwarma, which was dry and cracked the day I tried it. But I’d skip over both beef-based dishes for the soulful kalaya, a sweet, tomato-dominated stew of little bits of sauteed lamb and onions. Or the shish tawook, broiled crooks of extraordinarily tender chicken, edged with cumin and cayenne pepper.
For dessert, there are two housemade pastries: baklava and a bandbox burma, paved with pistachios and glazed with honey. It’s salty, rich and smells like extravagance. Don’t be surprised if your taxi driver takes notice.