Aladdin’s Restaurant and Hookah Lounge, 4740 State Highway 30, Amsterdam, 212-5615, aladdinshookahlounge.com. Serving 3-11 Mon-Thu, 3-midnight Fri-Sat. AE, D, MC, V.
Cuisine: Middle Eastern
Entrée price range: $6.50 (soujuk sandwich) to $12 (falafel, moutabal and hummus platter)
Ambiance: exotic log cabin
It shone like a beacon on the gloomy Amsterdam street, about the only active entity at 9 o’clock on a Friday night. From the parking lot we could hear the music throb; inside the place, the muted lighting was punctuated with rainbow flashes. A belly dancer worked the floor. Red tablecloths and a display of hookahs dress the multifloor dining area, with Christmas decorations accenting the walls. Hand-hewn beams give the place a Dutch barn look. High above our heads, an arched wooden bridge connected the two upstairs dining areas.
Aladdin’s Restaurant and Hookah Lounge opened in June on a stretch of Amsterdam’s Route 30 that has boomed with retail development over the past few years. It’s a partnership between Kousai Alikhan, of Gloversville, and his New York City-based friend Zouhir Lian, who also owns a Gloversville home. Both are from Syria, and sought to re-create the kind of eatery they grew up with.
Although belly dancing is offered only on Friday and Saturday nights, hookahs are available at or after every meal. The technique of sending one’s preferred smoke through a water bath is enjoyed by many different cultures, so it oughtn’t to seem too unusual. But the beauty of the hookah itself is impressive.
What’s provided with it is a choice of non-tobacco herbs in such flavors as mint, grape, lemon, peach, watermelon and strawberry. Should you wish the tobacco variety, there is, astonishingly, a second hookah bar in Amsterdam, adjacent to the nearby Smoker’s Choice outlet. There’s no food there, though, and the food is the main reason you need to check out Aladdin’s.
A comparatively simple menu is provided. Everything we sampled is excellently prepared. At first glance, it seems improbable. The prices are low, the napkins are paper. But our server was Lian himself, which meant we could get full and enthusiastic descriptions of the menu items. Falafel and hummus are old friends, of course, but moutabal was new to me and became an instant friend, as it’s a variant of baba ganouj in which the mashed eggplant is lightened with yogurt but still garlic-intense.
That sold me on the $12 Aladdin’s Platter, of which falafel and hummus are also components. Hummus has become an overprocessed supermarket item, and thus is in danger of being known only as the bland compote on those shelves. It’s a relief to taste something through which the flavors of chickpeas and sesame seeds shine, helped by generous measures of garlic and good olive oil.
In fact, the quality of olive oil made a dramatic difference throughout the meal. The tabouleh that was part of my wife’s order—a $10 kibbeh and tabouleh combo—was the parsley-rich version of the salad that I prefer, and the good oil helped emphasize all of its other fresh flavors. The Arabic salad ($7) is similar, but adds tomato and cucumber to the mix.
Sesame seeds are ground into tahini for the hummus; they accent the falafel as a decorative top-sprinkling. The falafel itself is as good as any I’ve tasted, with a moist (but not greasy) texture and a strong presence of seasonings in each diminutive patty. Dredge them through the garlicky sauce that accompanies them—or build a sandwich in the supplied pita halves, along with the tomato and lettuce that’s also provided—and the flavor experience is complete.
Kibbeh takes the patty concept in a different direction, with a mixed-meat-and-pine-nut mash fried within a crunchy shell. Again, it begs to be a sandwich, and the elements are there for you. A plate of olives and pickles and pita chips is served with the meal, and those chips are an addictive accompaniment to the dips, of which the moutabal became my favorite.
Falafel is available as a sandwich alone for $7. A Greek gyro, which is the Turkish doner kebab, is $8. Many of the items are available as appetizers; thus, the hummus is $4, moutabal is $4.50 and baba ganouj is $6. Also available alone are stuffed grape leaves ($4.50) and tabouleh ($8).
And there are chicken tenders ($6.50) and mozzarella sticks ($6.50). This no doubt is a conciliatory gesture towards the natives, because if I’ve learned nothing else from two decades of life in Montgomery County, I know there are people here as frightened of food as you and I might fear sharks or spiders.
An unintentionally hilarious Yelp review of the place, written by a local, underscores this. Getting her credentials squarely in place, she describes Aladdin’s falafel as “the worst I have ever had; and I have made boxed falafel before.” Among the “poisonous” flavors she encountered is olive oil, which is only to be expected if you’ve grown up only with Mazola oil and margarine.
So you have a mission. Make the drive to Amsterdam. It’s not as far as you think it is. Get off the Thruway and head north on 30, up the hill out of the city’s center and through the corridor of strip malls. Once you get past Lowe’s, keep a lookout. Aladdin’s is on your left. You’re bringing open-mindedness and a sense of fun. They’re providing excellent food and a flavorful smoke (if you want to go the whole Middle-East about it). And did I mention the baklava?