Nov 7, 2010

It's Not Magic

Restaurant: Aladdin Cafe
Location: 3903 Wyoming, KC MO
Food: Normal Middle Eastern selections
Service: Underwhelming waitstaff.
Atmosphere: Lacking, but comfortable outdoor seating featured.
Price: Quite fair. $10-$15 entrees.
Rating: One napkin

One of the things I love about going to big cities like New York or Chicago is their diversity. Their culinary diversity, in particular, which births pockets of restaurants offering authentic dishes to clustered ethnicities whose relatives years ago immigrated and started a community mimicking their culture from home.

In New York you've got Little Italy, Chinatown, Little Fuzhou within Chinatown, Curry Hill, Curry Row, Little Manila... the list goes on and on, representing almost any ethnic group I can name.

Here in Kansas City, with a smaller population, we lack diversity on this level. Southwest Boulevard houses a concentration of Mexican restaurants, but few of them offer a menu full of the food Mexican people actually eat on a daily basis. Columbus Park used to house a small Italian population and now has shifted toward Vietnamese, but not an overwhelming number. We have 5 or less Greek restaurants. Very little Korean food. Almost no West African food. And our sushi is pretty weak.

Perhaps most diminutive compared to larger cities is our Middle Eastern selection. We have a few restaurants under the header of “Mediterranean” but certainly no abundance. Two hands are plenty for counting our choices for food like hummus, falafel, shawarma, gyros... ingredients like chickpeas, pine nuts, olives (and their oil), grape leaves and pitas. Not only does Kansas City have too few restaurants serving this food, but it has basically no standout known for doing it exceptionally well.

Midtown - namely Westport and Valentine - is where one finds what's probably the most notable restaurant in this category--Jerusalem Café. I've been there several times. It does the job. I'll give it an official review sometime, I'm sure. But it's probably telling that when I had my most recent craving for this kind of food, I sought a new choice.

Wanting to pause, on this occasion, and take in the glorious fall weather, Elizabeth and I stopped in at the little Aladdin Café on 39th whose outdoor seating had been beckoning us for some time. We decided to officially moved it off the sticky list of "we should really go there sometime" restaurants for the sake of a KC Napkins post.

The mission was to determine whether Aladdin was a cut above. I'd read good things on sites like Yelp and Urbanspoon from fans, but I trust your average reviewer on those sites about as much as a used car salesman. So here's my take:

Started with a cup of lentil soup. It was a stunningly beautiful bright yellow color and tasted of sweet Middle Eastern spices - turmeric, especially. This was easily the best lentil-based soup I've ever eaten. Get it. The smooth, rich, sweet curry flavor came to the fore nicely. Not too much coconut milk; just right.

Then we split the sizable Agrabah Appetizer Combo. It came served on a large platter, smooth dips across one side – hummus, baba ghanouj, genie dip – and solids on the other—two crusty falafels and two dolmas.

The plain hummus was good, but not revelatory. It came dusted with red sumac and an obligatory sprinkling of parsley with plenty of olive oil pooled on top. The genie dip in the middle, bright red with infused roasted red peppers and a dollop of sambal-like chili paste on the side, was my favorite of the three. A good spice factor and the red pepper flavor really sang. I would’ve enjoyed twice as much. The ghanouj was only fair. It had a bitterness to it that surprised me. Lots of tahini going on there, I believe. Maybe too high of a ration to the pureed eggplant.

The falafel were fun, with a hearty crust on the outside. Perfect deep-fried balls of chickpea batter. A little salty and soft in the middle. And the dolmas were good – better than the last ones I had at Jerusalem Café with tender leaves around loosely packed meat and rice. Not too dense the way they can be when they’re bad.

Having tried the whole plate, if I were allowed to customize it for my own liking, I’d eliminate the baba ghanouj and dolmas and increase the falafel and genie dip proportions in creating the John Special.

A basket of pitas accompanied the platter. The soft triangles smeared with rich dips filled us up quickly, and we were pleased that our waiter offered us a refill, though we declined.

Little room in our stomachs to spare, we chose to split an entrée—the Shawrma Platter. Here again we were served a large plate heaped with food. A decent value at $9.99.

What we got seemed quite different than what we were picturing based on the description on the menu, though. On the plate was the curry marinated chicken (no surprise) on a bed of rice with cooked zucchini, carrot and onions and raw tomato; the menu described it as curry marinated chicken on warm pita and topped with onions, parsley and tomato sauce. So where our pita and tomato sauce went, I’m not sure. Regardless, the plate of food tasted okay. It was a little bland, but not offensively so.

And that’s how I end up characterizing Aladdin Café, in the end. It didn’t surprise, impress or wow (except the standout lentil soup). The service was pretty bad, but the server, I believe, was new so we cut him a lot of slack. The tables outside weren’t particularly comfortable, nor has much of anything been done to cozy-up the atmosphere inside or out. But if you want to take your Middle Eastern food al fresco, I’d certainly give Aladdin Café a try. Just don’t expect magic.

Rating: one napkin

Aladdin Café on Urbanspoon

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