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Paradise Found

Ali Baba

8  years after her original Mona's Meals review for The Sunday Times, Mona Farrugia returns to Ali Baba and finds that - thankfully - nothing has really changed.

 
Ali Baba
Ali Baba
Ali Baba
Ali Baba
Ali Baba
Ali Baba
Ali Baba
Editor rating
 
3.0 User rating
 
4.0 (3)

It was one of the faithful planetmona readers (join us here) that inadvertedly brought Ali Baba back to my attention. 'Where can I find some really good lamb that I don't cook myself?' he asked. In Malta, lamb, slaughtered by the restaurant owner himself and served in its pristine and sweet condition, can only mean one place: that bar-like structure in Gzira with the horrific silver aluminium facade and the wonderful Abdul Rahman Harb.

Abdul was ecstatic when I called to book. Way back in 2003 he gave the Sunday Times photographer gyp when he turned up to photograph the place. The photographer called me in a tizzy. 'Leave him' I said 'He's Muslim so we have to respect that'. As it was, Abdul was just not well-versed in the way of restaurant criticism, rather than a rabid religious nut hell bent on preserving his facial image.

I reviewed, giving him 3 stars. I reviewed again later. Did he mind? Did he call and e-mail me to grumble that he did not get four or five stars? No he did not. Eventually I ended up meeting his entire family. Reviewing criteria were tougher back then when Malta seemed to be on the cusp of a restaurant renaissance. These days, we'll take it as it comes, with most restaurants closing within the first few months of operation and nothing of note really opening at any time. Abdul, here you go: you have four now. Print this and hang it on your wall: there's even a picture of you which you let me take.

Ali Baba may be Malta's best kept restaurant secret, tucked away in the Bronx side of Gzira. We went with The Writer's Sis and her husband. The husband is from Gzira so he could point out all the junkies, dealers and prostitutes milling in the area. These days, when everything is so ridiculously sanitised, I find this exciting. At least it gives you something to watch while you're smoking a fag outside. We still parked the car right opposite though.

I do not need to go into detail but I shall reel off the fabulous quantities of genuine and amazing food available at this place where every dish is a cultural revelation, an extraordinarily simple rendition reliant solely on good produce and stupidly cheap prices. We had their assortment of dips including hummous bi tahina mopped up with flat bread. There was falafel (chickpea balls), baba ganoush, sambusci with spinach, weraq el enab (vine leaves), kibbeh, gharajjes (brik pastry triangles stuffed with meat - to die for), home-made lebneh (yoghurt) and basturma (smoked meat) with grilled halloumi (possibly the saltiest cheese on this fine earth).

Just in case you were wondering, those were the 'starters'. We moved on to (my favourite) raw lamb with salt and pepper. Don't be shocked. Sashimi is raw fish. A steak haché is raw cow (with a raw egg on top) so to me, anybody exclaiming just needs more food awareness. From Abdul I most definitely want raw lamb. 'I almost didn't have it!' he told me, explaining how, a week before, Agriculture Minister George Pullicino had been to Ali Baba and Abdul had an almighty go at him about the situation at the biccerija: apparently all offal is being burnt and thrown away now. I find this absolutely appalling: what waste. What sheer destruction of food culture.

We continued with stewed livers and kidneys doused in pepper, lamb fillets sauteed in more pepper, beautiful charred chicken livers which had a mouth feel of foie gras and  the tang of the added pomegranate syrup.

We rounded it all off with baklava and the pastry encased date cakes. With a lovely bottle of Lebanese red to round it all off, I challenge you to find a better meat specialist, not just Lebanese restaurant, on the entire island. Then we attacked his counter and bought dates, brik pastry and ghee.

Ali Baba puts any other 'Lebanese' on the island to shame. So simple. So quirky. So bloody good.

 

 

2nd review from 2008:

I once described myself, to a man who turned out to have a mind dirtier than the lining of a non-waste-separation skip, as a ‘meat lover’. Famous last words. He really gave me a ribbing. In fact, halfway through lunch - he had overcooked pasta and I had an abysmal steak - he was still hooting like a perv with broadband. Romancing the flesh, or demolishing it, was reason for mirth. Meat is a man thing.

So I guess I have to repeat myself here, on the printed page. I love meat. I love anything edible probably, but I particularly like my protein. That makes me an omnivore and a Palaeolithic lady. It also makes me oblivious to the pokes in the ribs and the double entendres that every single male exemplar reading this might be tickling himself with. That’s before the image of me dashing about chucking cave-made spears at vanishing animals in the jungle is conjured.

In one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, a hooker of a tome (did I just say ‘hooker’?), Anonymous Lawyer by Jeremy Blachman, the narrator, a partner in a firm of corporate lawyers, writes to one of his summer associates and asks him out to lunch at a restaurant of his choice. “There’s a whole world of food out there. Make it interesting. Organ meats. I want to feel like a hunter, not a gatherer’.

I can identify. I frequently get cravings for bits such as brain, sweetbreads (sounds innocent? It’s the thymus gland), and yes why not, other parts which I’m sure the Ed of this paper would have a good chuckle at but which I’m not going to give him the pleasure of doing by writing about them.

In Malta, there are very few chefs with the balls, if you’ll excuse the analogy, to turn these animal parts into wondrous culinary delights. Claude Camilleri at Palazzo Santa Rosa does it with cojones and other organs. Daniel Debattista at Rebekah’s has a way with tongue (cow’s, not his), and this week I discovered Hani Harb. I kneel at the floor of his Lebanese altar. This man is a genius. You heard it here first.

Chefs who use the parts of animals other chefs don’t dare are scavengers. They will spend days hunting down good butchers who know their mettle; finding out whether the meat has been injected with water and chemicals (this is normal these days); whether the chicken had a happy life before it died; and what the cow ate for its last supper. Depending on the answer to each of these questions, you will be served either excellent meat or the kind of defrosted disgustorama that we’ve grown to accept as ‘normal’ these days. In looking for wuss cuts like beef fillet, they come across, or specifically ask for, ‘lesser’ cuts.

I e-mailed the Art Director and the Graphic Designer. ‘Lunch?’ The last time we went out to one, we ended up at a café on the Gzira front where the guy running the place thought it was perfectly acceptable to poke his finger into my soup to see if it was warm enough and AD and GD had a hair each in their plates. From a different head.

Appearances can be deceptive, which is why this café lured us in with its shiny interiors and Ali Baba would probably scare a lot of people off. You have it from me: don’t let the cheap sign, the aluminium shop windows packed with catering-size red lentils and tins of harissa put you off. Wondrously, I always make my year’s discoveries in the very beginning and then at the end. Sometimes I’m lucky and it’s both. Last year it was Marvin and Tarragon in St. Paul’s Bay. This time, the treasure really is at Ali Baba.

The chef, owner and factotum (he serves too) is Hani. Before, the restaurant was run by his dad, and Hani popped in every now and again while working full time a 5-star hotel kitchens. Thankfully he survived that. Now he is at Ali Baba for lunch and dinner.

AD refused lunch to stay in with his plumber. He has been following The Foodbook and has lost 4 kilos in 3 weeks. So I took GD, who was a little scared of the offal on the menu and stuck to chicken like boys of his generation who think meat is something that comes in cubes. Then again, he is about 300 years younger than me.

The chicken seemed to be seared with a firm iron hand on the outside and was stunningly soft on the inside. In reality, it has been ‘marinated’ in salt for days, which breaks down the flesh and draws out the water. Hand on heart, it is the absolutely best-cooked, best-sourced chicken I have ever, ever tasted. We had some pumpkin dip and bean dip with fragrant, warm pitta but really, once you tasted that chicken, you forgot everything else. I sent a colleague to eat there. He returned and told me it was stunning and looked like fish, it was so tender. He was right; it does.

I had sheep brains fried in lemon juice and sumac, which has a mild sour taste. GD was shocked. I was enthralled: they were fantastic. When the spice coating hit the oil, it was at such perfect temperature that they sealed the outside perfectly and left the inside with the texture of the softest meat you’ve ever had.

In fact, this lunch was so stupendous I was determined to go back as soon as possible and take others along, primarily TW who after our first Ali Baba foray some years ago, has been at me to return. We took the Rotund One and The Artist. Hani asked if we’d leave it up to him. He would prepare a Lebanese feast. Who are we to argue? The RO has lost 7 kilos by following the low-carb diet in The Foodbook (incidentally, it’s out in paperback for a paltry Eur20. If you haven’t bought a copy, you’re still fat). He is looking great. TA, who does the cooking, also looks lovely. But then, she always does.

We ate and ate and ate. It was a real Roman situation, but with Lebanese food. As if Hani had not already won us over, he immediately understood what ‘low-carb’ means and told us he has to follow it himself to keep his weight down. So all the food he presented was according to our diet.

We stuffed our mouths with baba ghanouge, humous, a roast pumpkin puree, labneh (yoghurt made in house), fattoush (a cucumber, onion, parsley, tomato and mint salad). We had falafel, those lovely vegetable patties made with beans, onions, celery, garlic and mild spice. We devoured the brains (again), leaving good space for the amazing, incredible and wondrous raw lamb – like carpaccio, only much, much better.

Hani made us lamb shanks and oven-roasted rabbits. As if that weren’t enough, he brought over twelve frogs’ legs and more of the is-it-fish chicken. We told ourselves we couldn’t eat any more, then we did. In fact, I’m wondering if I forgot to put down something.

Throughout, Hani and his right-hand man made a big fuss of us. They were making a big fuss of everyone, but I think Rotund One was getting a lot of attention. We eschewed desserts but insisted that The Writer should have some. His ‘portion for one’ turned out to be 4 pieces of bakleva from which we low-carbers stole the almond, and 4 slices of halwa which was smooth and had none of that sharp sugary taste which scratches the back of your throat. We licked the pomegranate reduction (two dots) like children. It was stunning.

Hani says he’s going to refurbish the place, keeping it real and keeping the prices as they are. Right now, they are ludicrously low. We spent Eur140, including tips, on all this plus 3 glasses of beautiful Lebanese wine. We all insisted he shouldn’t but we know the place needs a bit of make-up.

Don’t think you can just turn up without booking. On a Tuesday night, Hani was packed to the gills. And with good reason too: he is an amazing technician, a people person and madly in love with food and meat. I only know how to do the last one.

Additional Information

Location

Address 9, Frederick C Ponsonby Street
Town Gzira
Country Malta

Restaurant

Cuisine Lebanese

Contact Details

Contact Number +356 21340119

Map

 

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Rating:
 
3.0
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Mona Farrugia
July 22, 2010
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6 of 7 people found the comment helpful
 
 

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Rating:
 
4.0   (3)
 
 
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Malika Cassar
March 31, 2013
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I've been to ALI BABA yesterday with my wife & the food is great as much as the patron With happen to. Be a very good friend of mine since his family come to malta . Thanks for yesterday my good friend. Noel.

 
Rating:
 
4.0
Yasmin Galea
June 16, 2011
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I've been to Ali Baba yesterday since the reviews tempted me a bunch. The food is gorgeous as much as the owner.
I'm not an adventurous type when i comes to lamb or harissa so I sat for chicken cooked in an impeccable manner.
The Meze were great, actually I could just live with meze but anyway.
I had your review handy on my phone and studied the pictures carefully in order to order what's in the picture (pathetic yes, but the choice was awesome).
Thanks Mona for the review as I discovered a new old friend.

 
Rating:
 
3.0
David Pike
June 14, 2011
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We went a couple of weeks ago after reading your review. We like the quirky decor - felt quite ethnic. The Bekaa Valley wine was not bad at all. The food was interesting and certainly different from the standard fare in Malta. Criticisms - When my wife phoned to book,she was told "OK, you can come". How kind! The falafel and kibbeh were slightly overcooked and dry, and the lamb - a huge lump of it on the bone - was also on the dry side. I do not feel that it cheap, but not expensive either. Except for the baklava which, although quite good, is overpriced at 16 Euro for four little pieces. Nevertheless, Abdul was an enthusiastic and attentive host and we shall return, probably to have meze from the starters, and to ask for Abdul's brik made with his own warka pastry.

 
Rating:
 
5.0
joanna mifsud
June 14, 2011
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The food at Ali Baba is very good and value for money. I eat there nearly twice a week and nothing to complain. Although it is an old restaurant the food is gorgeous. You have to try it to know . The important is that the food is always fresh.

 
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joanna mifsud
June 14, 2011
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The food at Ali Baba is very good and value for money. I eat there nearly twice a week and nothing to complain. Although it is an old restaurant the food is gorgeous. You have to try it to know . The important is that the food is always fresh.

 
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N/A
Stefan Meli
June 14, 2011
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Absolutely LOVE this place!! The host is such a nice guy & his cooking blows my mind each and every time I eat there! The vast array of foods he brings to the table is just amazing. The raw lamb is out of this world; simply fantastic, the dips to die for, the kibbeh tasty and delicate at the same time. Geez, I don't think I've ever eaten anything that hasn't blown me away there. What really impresses me though, possibly as much as the food itself, is the love with which Abdul describes each dish, sort of like he is explaining and discussing a work of art.

 
 
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