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photo:B.A. Nilsson

Piece of the Middle East
By B.A. Nilsson

Al-Baraki

184 River St., Troy, 270-9404. Serving Mon-Sat 10:30-8. AE, D, MC, V.

Ali Baba

2243 15th St., Troy, 273-1170. Serving Mon-Thu 11-11, Fri-Sat 11-midnight. AE, MC. V.

Marmora Café

203 River St., Troy, 266-9300. Serving Tue-Sat 8-5. D, MC, V.

In culinary terms, Troy is our most Protean city. There was a time when it was poised to become the area’s fine-dining capital; for a while it seemed to be attracting funky vegetarian joints and coffee shops. No single identity has emerged, but there’s a new one that threatens to become a defining force.

Troy has hosted a selection of superior Italian restaurants quite well over the years, to the point where it hardly seems ethnic any more. But the food of other, less-familiar cultures has been moving in. Shalimar has been a reliable stop for Indian fare for several years; it has a more recent neighbor in First Choice Caribbean. But it’s the Middle East that suddenly has achieved a more determined presence. It began when Ali Baba, a Turkish restaurant, opened on 15th Street, with the unlucky timing of opening its doors in August 2001. It withstood whatever political repercussions may have been floating around then and has gone on to become extremely popular, especially on Friday and Saturday nights.

It wasn’t a total change of pace for the venue, which hosted a short-lived kebab house before. In the case of Marmora Café, the River Street space was an office before Moheb and Maggie Habib turned it into a restaurant; he had been running a distribution business there before he was persuaded to turn it into an eatery that features favorites from his native Egypt.

Paul Chedrawee, on the other hand, already had a restaurant at his River Street location before he renamed it Al-Baraki and switched the menu from pizza to Lebanese fare. It’s a tiny storefront with a handful of tables, but you couldn’t feel more welcome when Paul and his wife, Simone, take charge of your dining intentions and guide you through what will seem like unfamiliar cookery only for the briefest time. In summer months, sidewalk tables allow you to soak in the atmosphere of what’s becoming Troy’s antique-shop district. You can also rent a hookah ($5) for an al fresco smoke.

Paul or Simone will be quick to encourage you to try a sampler platter ($6.50 to $10, depending on the size of your party), which features tastes of the falafel (deep-fried chickpeas), hummus (chickpea and tahini paste), stuffed grape leaves (they stuff their own), baba ghanouj (smoked eggplant paste) and more, served with a heap of pita.

It’s vegetarian heaven here, adding that elusive element of flavor to meatless dishes. Paul is enough of a fan of garlic that he not only includes appreciable quantities of it in his cooking, but also has perfected a recipe for a garlic paste that’s available as a side dish—it’s a killer spread on pita—and soon will be marketed to the public. Meat dishes also are many, featured as kebabs, in pastry and on what amounts to a wafer-crust pizza. The lentil soup is a treasure, as is the tabbouli, a salad that for once isn’t dominated by the bulghur wheat that’s nevertheless a key component.

Soup is also a Marmora Café specialty, and I overheard several phone calls asking about the day’s blends during a recent visit. The café is a handsome facility, not overly large but certainly accommodating, a display of baklava variants dominating a counter at the rear of the room. Chef-owner Moheb Habib had long been cooking for family and friends when he decided to share his skill with the general public, and he is delighted to explain what’s available and help you choose a soup or salad or sandwich.

For the less adventuresome, traditional sandwiches are available, but who wants to eat turkey or ham and cheese with more exotic fare nearby? Still, the ham and cheese I sampled ($5, ordered because I needed to know this) was a cut above what’s too often a bland presentation of too-little meat and imitation mustard.

The lunch menu, on which nothing tops $8, also features the usual suspects: hummus, baba ghanouj, stuffed grape leaves ($4 for each of those dishes, served with pita), falafel (available as a $7 platter or $6 wrap) and the sandwich of pressed ground meat and yogurt-based sauce called a gyro ($6) and pronounced every which way, but too often Americanized into the one wrong way, “jy-ro.”

At Ali Baba, you don’t have to wrestle with the pronunciation. It’s called a durum wrapped kebab ($6), and it’s one of the best you’ll find north of Manhattan. Note the rotisserie in the back sporting a huge loaf of pressed meats; note the fiery brick oven, in which loaves of lavash bread puff into huge pillows.

The sampler platter features a Turkish twist on hummus, baba ganouj, etc., and, at $9, is a great lunch or dinner bargain. Many kebabs and pressed meat dishes are offered; so, too, is plenty of vegetarian fare.

And there’s pizza. “But it’s not regular pizza,” co-owner Hakki Cakal assures me. “We don’t have the toppings you might expect. Our chicken curry pizza is very popular. So is the donar kebab pizza.” The $17 pies are large and tasty and a welcome alternative to the usual.

Although the countries represented here—Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt—may not always be the best of friends, that’s an abstraction of politics. Here, where it’s also food-related, the owners speak well of one another, acknowledging that such variety helps the business of all.

They also have in common that each is a family-run business, where the customers become an extension of that spirit. And there’s no question in my mind that when we dine at the tables of one another, abstractions of hostility disappear.

Click here for a list of recently reviewed restaurants.


TABLE SCRAPS

Schenectady recently celebrated the grand opening of Villa Italia Pasticceria in a beautiful new building at 226 Broadway. It signals the rebirth of an institution that served the city for 40 years from its former space in Rotterdam. The Mallozzi family (which also runs their namesake restaurant in Rotterdam) is positioning itself to be part of the rebirth of downtown Schenectady itself, characterized by the expansion of Proctor’s and the expected arrival of several new shops and restaurants. The new Villa Italia totals 7,200 square feet, five-sixths of which is given over to the commercial bakery, producing breads, pastries, fancy cakes and much more; the retail shop also features sandwiches and homemade gelato. And the display cases, true to the family’s roots, were imported from Italy. . . . Remember to pass your scraps to Metroland (e-mail food@banilsson.com).


We want your feedback

Have you eaten at any recently reviewed restaurants? Agree or disagree with B.A.? Let us know what you think...

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* E-mail address not required to submit your feedback, but required to be placed in running for a Van Dyck Gift Certificate.

What you're saying...

I very much enjoyed eating dinner at Daniel's at Ogdens. You review described my dining experience perfectly. This wasn't the case with Pancho's. I much prefer Garcia's or Lake View Tavern for Mexican fare. I agree that a restaurant can have an off night so I'll give the second unit on Central Avenue a try.

Mary Kurtz
Castleton

First, yes I miss the star ratings, bring it back. Second, I haven't had a chance to visit Poncho's yet, but I especially like reading the reviews.

Pat Russo
East Greenbush

I would travel to Amsterdam to this restaurant - it's not that far away. People traveled from all over to eat at Ferrandi's in Amsterdam. From his background, I'm sure the chef's sauce is excellent and that is the most important aspect of an Italian restaurant. Sometimes your reviewer wastes words on the negative aspects of a restaurant. I'm looking forward to trying this restaurant - I look forward to Metroland every Thursday especially for the restaurant review. And by the way Ferrandi's closed its Amsterdam location and is opening a new bistro on Saratoga Lake - Should be up and running in May. It will be called Saratoga Lake Bistro. It should be great!

Peggy Van Deloo
Schenectady

So happy to see you finally made out!! Our experiences have always been wonderful, the staff is extremely professional, the food subperb, and the atmosphere very warm and comfortable. Let us not forget to mention "Maria" the pianist on Friday and Saturday nights.

Charlie and Marie
Michaels Restaurant

I have been to Michael's several times and each time I have enjoyed it very much. The food is delicious and the staff is great. Also, Maria Riccio Bryce plays piano there every Friday and Saturday evening, a nice touch to add to the already wonderful atmosphere. It is also easy to find, exit 27 off the thruway to 30 north for about 5 miles.

N. Moore
Albany

Wonderful!

Elaine Snowdon
Albany

We loved it and will definitely go back.

Rosemarie Rafferty

Absolutely excellent. The quality and the flavor far surpasses that of other Indian restaurants in the area. I was a die-hard Shalimar fan and Tandoor Palace won my heart. It blows Ghandi out of the water. FInally a decent place in Albany where you can get a good dinner for less than $10 and not have tacos. The outdoor seating is also festive.

Brady G'sell

Indian is my favorite cuisine available in the area--I loved Tandoor Palace. We all agreed that the tandoori chicken was superior to other local restaraunts, and we also tried the ka-chori based on that intriguing description-delicious.

Kizzi Casale
Albany

Your comments about the Indian / Pakistani restaurants being as "standardized as McDonald's" shows either that you have eaten at only a few Indian / Pakistani restaurants or that you have some prejudices to work out. That the physical appearances are not what you would consider fancy dancy has no bearing on the food. And after all, that is what the main focus of the reviews should be. Not the physical appearances, which is what most of your reviews concentrate on.
A restaurant like The Shalimar, down on Central Avenue, may not look the greatest, but the food is excellent there. And the menu has lots of variety - beef, lamb, vegetarian, chicken, and more..

Barry Uznitsky
Guilderland



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