Khalid Chaudry won't give up the recipes behind the food at his new Mount Vernon restaurant, Alladin Kabob. When pressed about the magic behind the meat samosas, or the sprinkle of red powder on a lemon sitting atop a small salad, the restaurant's owner demurred.
"Those are our spices," he said. "It's our secret."
Whatever those secret spice combinations are, they work. Alladin Kabob's menu stretches across the Middle East and through India, with a few American dishes thrown into the mix. Regardless of point of origin, Chaudry's food is expertly seasoned. Served by staff that's knowledgeable and kind, dinner at Alladin is better than the average kabob joint meal.
Alladin opened in March in the building that used to house Abacrombie. Prior to opening, Chaudry gave the basement space a complete overhaul. Like the menu, the decor is a mix of influences and styles. Glittering, golden hookahs greet diners at the entrance; inside, colorful cushions and a peek into the skylight-lit hookah lounge continue the Middle Eastern vibe.
But the restaurant's smattering of American specialties is reflected in the artwork — Audrey Hepburn gazes at diners from one wall — and on the TVs positioned around the room (during our visit, they were tuned to the Disney Channel).
On a recent Friday evening, Alladin was quiet, with few guests dining in and neighbors occasionally popping by to pick up carry out. We reaped the benefits of the slow night: With few distractions, our waitress was prompt and thoughtful and our food came quickly.
Though during our visit, Alladin's bar wasn't up and running, Chaudry expects the full bar to be available sometime during May. The menu may also still be a work in progress — Chaudry admits it may grow.
During our visit, the menu's chickpea appetizer wasn't available. We started instead with meat samosas ($2.99), neat triangles of fried pastry, stuffed with a ground beef, bright green peas and those mysterious spices. The samosas, which came with an iceberg salad and a dish of cool yogurt sauce, were light on meat, but full of flavor. The peas offset the richness of the beef — each bite was both sweet and savory.
As we finished the samosas, our waitress brought us an order of naan ($1.25) — several dinner plate-sized rounds of Indian bread, warm and charred from the grill — and three small dishes of okra stewed in a spiced tomato sauce ($2.50 for the three dishes together). The okra, a special we tried at the waitress' suggestion, was soft and just a little bit spicy. Chaudry explained that it doesn't take too long to prepare, but the okra and tomatoes tasted as though they had been cooking for hours.
Like the okra, chicken saag ($7.99) arrived with just enough spicy heat to make the dish interesting but not overwhelming. The spinach-based sauce was less creamy than some interpretations of the dish; its fresh flavor paired well with moist chicken, still on the bone. Even without the chicken, we would have been happy scooping up the bright green sauce with torn slices of naan.
The lamb kabob ($8.99), arriving on a bed of rice, with a small salad, also hit the sweet spot between too much and too little spice. The lamb smelled great, thanks to another proprietary blend of spices. Though it was a little dry, its texture was bolstered by moist rice and tangy yogurt sauce.
From the American side of the menu, the fried chicken ($5.99), served with French fries, was lightly breaded and pleasantly juicy. The chicken's coating hinted at the exotic — an American classic with a slight Middle Eastern twist. The fries were hot and crispy, but on a table full of exciting flavors, their lack of spice relegated them to wallflower status.
We ended dinner with faluda, a traditional Pakistani-Indian dessert of iced milk flavored with rose syrup, mixed with small bits of vermicelli ($3.50). Arriving at the table in a large glass, looking very much like a strawberry milkshake, the dessert's sweet flavor was familiar, but its texture was intriguing and exotic.
As we left the restaurant to friendly goodbyes from the staff, we tried — unsuccessfully — to ferret out the spices we'd just eaten. Each dish had its own distinct flavor, thanks to careful and sophisticated seasoning. But we'll keep asking — and keep sampling the menu, trying to figure them out on our own.
Back story: Alladin Kabob is a new Mount Vernon restaurant (in the former Abacrombie space) serving Middle Eastern-inspired kabobs, traditional Indian dishes and a handful of American specialties, all well-spiced and seasoned.
Parking: Street parking
Signature dish: Order extra naan to scoop up the chicken saag, tender chicken in a slightly spicy, bright green spinach sauce.
Where: 58 West Biddle St., Baltimore
Contact: 443-708-1112, alladinkabob.com
Open: 11 a.m.-midnight Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Friday-Sunday
Credit Cards: MasterCard, Visa, Discover
[Key: Excellent: ✭✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭✭; Fair or Uneven: ✭✭; Poor: ✭]