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Ali Baba’s
Out of a possible five

Successor improves on original

Anan Abour and his wife, Rula Anas, wanted to put their stamp on the business when they took over the former Maza Grille in February.

Abour worked at Maza, but after the couple took over the place north of Dupont Road on Coldwater Road, they renamed it Ali Baba’s Grille and committed themselves to making the items on its unique Mid-Eastern/Mediterranean menu from scratch.

And the result is fantastic. That freshness and commitment to doing things right pushed it past its predecessor, which was once a favorite of mine but had fallen off in recent years.

The menu is similar, but there are more combinations and a few newfound treats.

The Samboosek Filo Pies were the first new item I tried, and these off-menu appetizers were worthy of a permanent place. Pockets of the crispy, delicate filo dough were stuffed with meat or vegetables. I chose meat, and the ground beef inside was nicely seasoned with Middle Eastern spices. They were hard to stop eating.

Anas stopped by my table and asked which versions I ordered and how I liked them. After hearing my positive comments, she said she wished I had tried the vegetable. Five minutes later, she returned with two gratis vegetable ones for me to try, and they were even better. Filled with a blend of potatoes, peas and carrot that were bright yellow from turmeric, they were just a little spicy from a touch of curry and super flavorful.

That gesture and the smile on her face as she watched me try the veggie pies reinforced her and her husband’s commitment to excellence.

Even the simple items in the Ali Baba’s Sampler – hummus, baba ghanoush, kibbeh and tabbouleh – were elevated. The silky smooth hummus was topped with a few whole chick peas, pitted black olives and a dash of parsley and sumac spice blend – a somewhat sour, nutty, brown spice often used in Middle Eastern cuisine.

The baba ghanoush had a strong roasted eggplant flavor; it was so strong that it might have too much of a charred taste for those who are used to processed stuff you get in a grocery, but I loved it.

The kibbeh was perfect. The exterior of these balls of beef and bulgur wheat was fried until dark brown and crunchy and the inside was moist and tender.

Ali Baba’s also offers a similar vegetable appetizer sampler that includes stuffed grape leaves and falafel in place of the kibbeh and tabbouleh. The falafel was tasty, but the grape leaves were the star. Served cold, they were stuffed with rice, a little red pepper and other vegetables with a touch of lemon. What made these rolls special, however, was the mild flavor of the leaves, which can often be bitter.

For my main course, the dinner-for-two combination was a great deal for any pair. For $32.99, it includes two fatoush salads, hummus, baba ghanoush, rice or fries and six kabobs – four kafta, four beef, two lamb and two vegetable.

The salads – tomatoes, cucumber and onions over mixed greens with the restaurant’s tangy, almost sour dressing – were topped with crispy fried pita strips dusted in that wonderful sumac.

The kafta is sort of a Middle Eastern meatloaf with ground beef mixed with a little minced onion, parsley and tomatoes and spices. It had a sweet, spiced flavor and was very moist. It was also great as a sandwich, which had a large, Polish sausage-sized hunk of kafta between pita bread, along with onions, tomato and shawarma sauce – a garlicky mayonnaise used on all of the shawarma sandwiches.

The beef and chicken kabobs were perfectly grilled, but the lamb kabobs were to die for. The meat had just enough gaminess to remind you it wasn’t beef and each piece just melted in my mouth.

The biggest surprise I found at Ali Baba’s was its addition of house-made desserts: nammoura, a Lebanese semolina flour cake soaked in syrup, and kanafeh, a traditional Middle Eastern cheese and pistachio pastry also soaked in sweet syrup.

The nammoura had a gritty texture similar to cornbread and was topped with an almond. The syrup permeated every bite with sweetness, kind of how the sweet milk does in a Mexican three-milk cake.

I enjoyed the kanafeh more as it, too, was super sweet, but had more layers of texture and flavor. The bottom is made with crunchy, orange-colored filo strips that are topped with ground pistachios and a mix of a traditional Arabic cheese and mozzarella. It is topped with more filo strips and the whole thing is soaked in syrup.

It was a little crunchy, a little nutty and a little chewy and a lot of delicious.

Those desserts also must be accompanied by another of Ali Baba’s unique offerings – Turkish coffee. This dark, thick coffee is super strong but also just a little sweet and nutty. It is just wonderful to sip along with the desserts.

The décor at Ali Baba’s is comfortable with a few Mediterranean touches and modern furnishings that raise it above the strip-mall norm. The service, however, still needs improvement.

During one visit, my server was overwhelmed while having to handle the entire dining room while also seating customers and serving as somewhat of a baby sitter for an upset little girl who I assume was related to the owners or a staff member. He did his best but was still inconsistent.

When the owners were there, it was better. Abour greeted my party during one visit and offered any help he could in case we were unfamiliar with some of the dishes.

And, as I mentioned before, Anas also made her way from table to table to ensure the food was up to snuff.

And that food was more than up to snuff. The quality and care used to make it makes Ali Baba’s a new favorite that is better than the old.

Restaurant: Ali Baba’s Grille

Address: 10812 Coldwater Road

Phone: 619-2001

Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Sunday

Cuisine: Mediterranean

Handicapped accessible: Yes

Alcohol: None

Credit cards: Yes

Kid-friendly: Yes

Menu: Ali Baba’s Sampler ($11.99), veggie sampler ($10.99), kafta sandwich ($5.29), dessert ($2.59)

Rating breakdown: Food: *** (3-star maximum); atmosphere: 1/2 (1 maximum), service: 1/2 (1 maximum)

Note: Restaurants are categorized by price range: $ (less than $20 for three-course meal), $$ ($20-$29); $$$ ($30-$39), $$$$ ($40-$49), $$$$$ ($50 and up).

Ryan DuVall is a restaurant critic for The Journal Gazette. This review is based on two unannounced visits. The Journal Gazette pays for all meals. Email him at rduvall@jg.net; call at 461-8130. DuVall’s past reviews can be found at www.journalgazette.net. You can follow him on Twitter @DiningOutDuVall.