212 East 34th Street (near 3rd Ave; map); (212) 683-9206; alibabaturkishcuisine.com
Veggie Options: About 18 appetizers, a few salads, and five entrees
Cost: Appetizers are around $6, entrees start at $14
Ali Baba, a Turkish restaurant in Murray Hill, is a bit of a throwback. Every plate is decorated with a pale slice of tomato, or a whole row of them, fanned the way sixties-era cooks would decorate a cocktail party spread. These sad, colorless specimens may be a turnoff, but there are still great bites to be found on Ali Baba's menu, especially for mixed groups of vegetarians and their meat-eating friends.
I highly recommend starting out with an order or two of Mucver ($6.95), tender zucchini pancakes with creamy interiors (there's a little feta in the batter) and crisply-fried edges. The pancakes are luscious on their own, sweet from the zucchini, and even better smeared with a dollop of tart yogurt-garlic sauce.
Ali Baba's hummus ($5.50) won't change your life, but it's reasonably creamy and smooth, with a nutty flavor that's especially nice with a hunk of warm sesame-seeded bread. You can also order an assortment of appetizers, five chef-selected choices for $12.50.
Instead, we sampled the Imam Bayildi ($6.95), a baby eggplant stuffed with tomatoes, caramelized onions, parsley, spices, and pine nuts. (Beware, those with nut allergies: not all nuts are noted on the menu, though the waiters are accommodating and knowledgeable.) The eggplant was silky and smoky, though we wondered if it might be even tastier if it was served warm.
Despite the inclusion of those less-than-vivid tomatoes, the Coban Salatsi (Shepherd Salad) ($10 for a small) is the perfect light, refreshing starter for a muggy day--the cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, and onions were well-seasoned and liberally dosed with dill. It's a nice counterpoint to richer main courses.
There are five vegetarian main courses on the menu at Ali Baba, but we ended up accidentally ordering two very similar preparations--perhaps we should have gone with the spinach or the falafel dinner instead of the okra ($13.95) that we ordered. The okra was a little tart--like the flavor of marinated artichokes--making us wonder if it was just very cooked or possibly sourced from a can. Served with buttery rice and baked in a sweet tomato sauce, it was passable but not something we'd order again.
The mantar saute ($14.50) was by far preferable: the same tomato sauce preparation was rich and delicious when filled with sauteed mushrooms, onions, and red and green peppers. Though we couldn't shake the feeling that we were eating a plate piled with spaghetti sauce, we all agreed that the dish was satisfying.
When the table was cleared, our waiter presented a platter full of various phyllo-dough pastries, and we couldn't resist the baklava ($4.50), topped with pistachios. You'll need a seriously sweet tooth (or a big group of friends) to finish the plateful; they're dripping in honey and quite decadent.
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