Aladdin's Cafe is wise to stick to what it does best

Locust Point restaurant offers fare of Lebanon

Eats: Dining Reviews/Hot Stuff

October 21, 2004|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Aladdin's Cafe started out as a pizza and sub shop, then became a pizza, sub and Lebanese food place, and now serves only Lebanese food.

Any restaurant is to be commended for focusing on what it does best. As owner Nader Abushkhei noted, many Locust Point restaurants serve pizza, but Lebanese food is still unusual, even in this rapidly gentrifying area.

However, it would be nice if the menu reflected its new focus. The carryout and sit-down menus still list all the subs and pizzas that are no longer being served, as well as deli standards such as fries, chicken wings and onion rings.

Among the missing, to our vast disappointment, was the delicious-sounding manakish bel zaatar, a pizza topped with roasted sesame seeds, onions and spices. Even the shrimp kebabs have been dumped.

We had no choice but to stick to the shwarmas, falafels, salads, shish kebabs and vegevetarian platters, as the takeout menu spells it.

Aladdin's sampler includes everyone's favorite Middle Eastern comfort foods -- hummus, grape leaves, a couple of falafel balls and a dollop of baba ghannouj, with a few pretty green olives and perfect tomato slices thrown on for good measure. It is presented with a large basket of warm, but alas not perfectly fresh, pita bread.

Most of the business at Aladdin's is probably take-out. Maybe that is why the service was not particularly thoughtful. I have no problem ordering at the counter or choosing my drinks from a display case, but a few little things would have made the experience more enjoyable.

The sampler was clearly a dish intended for sharing, yet we wound up eating straight from the platter since no plates were provided. Some food arrived on paper plates and some on china. Sandwiches were wrapped in paper even though we were eating in. As for the bathrooms, I'll just say I doubt I'm the only one who prefers mine equipped with toilet paper.

The sampler, like the rest of the food at Aladdin, was uneven. The hummus was deliciously garlicky and creamy, but the baba ghannouj was overpowered by a bitter, artificial flavor. The grape leaves and the falafel tasted fine, but their texture bordered on mushy.

The tabbouleh, a tangy bulgur salad, was loaded with fresh parsley, tomatoes and tiny bits of red onion, but a little more lemon would have countered the oiliness of the dressing.

The best choice appeared to be the chicken sharma, a lovely sandwich of marinated, grilled chicken, lettuce and tomato in a warm pita. The kafta kebab, made of ground beef and lamb, was basically a baton-shaped meatloaf, and the chicken kebab was too white-meaty to be interesting.

Both kebabs came with a large portion of nicely grilled vegetables and timbales of moist and flavorful basmati rice. At first, our server forgot the salads that were also included, and then arrived with tiny plastic tubs filled with a savory mix of peppers, onions and tomatoes.

Desserts include a house-baked baklava, as well as tiramisu and cheesecake. The night we were there, the baklava and tiramisu were gone, so we were given an extra slice of cheesecake on the house. We were told the cheesecake came from the Cheesecake Factory, so of course it was delicious, but both of our slices were frozen in the middle.

I don't mean to make the place sound uninviting. Efforts have been made to warm up the interior of Aladdin's. The walls are sponge-painted a rich brick red, beading drapes from the ceiling, and a few pieces of colorful artwork do what they can to create ambiance.

You can also eat on the large porch as long as the weather is nice and you don't mind the smoke from the water pipes. The pipes, known as shishas, can be rented for $7, along with tobacco in a variety of flavors, including apple, cappuccino and rose.

Bet you can't find that anyplace else in Locust Point.

Aladdin's Cafe

Where: 1421 Lawrence St., Locust Point

Call: 410-625-7800

Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner

Credit cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa

Prices: Appetizers, $3.95-$6.95; entrees, $3.50-$15.95

Food: **

Service: **

Atmosphere: **

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