When my husband and I moved to Anchorage in 1999, Aladdin's became one of our very first "regular" restaurants. We had lived around the corner from a great Middle Eastern restaurant in New York and were worried when we left. Where would we get our kebabs? Our stuffed grape leaves? Our falafel? Of course, some people might have other worries about moving 4,000 miles away to a brand new city with no apartment, job or friends. But we had our priorities straight.
Back then, we were charmed by the restaurant and the family that ran it. A few weeks after our first daughter was born, we braved the logistics of an evening out and brought her to Aladdin's. The owner welcomed us and found a chair secure enough for her infant seat. His young children (who, at the time, were precociously working the front of house as hosts) each came by to smile and coo at my newborn. It was truly a family affair, and my family felt right at home.
Eventually, Aladdin's fell off my radar. As a food writer, I'm always in search of the latest thing and sometimes that means neglecting some tried-and-true favorites. Recently, I was dismayed to realize that it had been more than a decade since my last visit to Aladdin's — a situation, I decided, that required an immediate remedy. So I took my husband out for an evening of kefta, red wine and nostalgia.
Please note, this took some careful planning, as Aladdin's is only open Thursday to Saturday from 5-9 p.m. While we were seated right away, reservations are suggested.
Once we got there we found, happily, that little has changed at Aladdin's.
The owner, Rabah Chettfour, still greets you at the door and seats you with the gracious hospitality of ownership. The dining room, while not stuffy, is still serene with muted colors, soft lighting and simple, elegant touches like tablecloths and fresh flowers. The menu, too, is unchanged, featuring all of the traditional "greatest hits" of Middle Eastern cuisine along with a few old-school European classics (duck a l'orange!).
Best of all, the whole Chettfour family is still working the front of house. And they're still all smiles. We regaled our server with memories of him and his sisters as children. I all but squeezed his cheek. He probably gets this all the time but admirably, and kindly, refrained from showing it. "It's the same for me!" he replied. "I've seen so many customers grow up here over the years."
The dining room was bustling and, being slightly pressed for time, I was a little worried that a table of 10 had been seated before us. But if the dining room was bustling, the staff was hustling. Dishes came at good intervals. Wine and water glasses were refilled promptly. Despite the full dining room, pacing was perfect.
We ordered three entrees (including a sampler of items available on the appetizer list), which come with a choice of house soup, the soup du jour or a salad. We opted for one of each.
The house lentil soup is creamy and comforting and, magically, not too filling as a starter. This soup was light in texture while rich in flavor. The soup du jour, teeming with chunks of beef, potatoes and green beans, was similarly light but with a potent, fiery broth. The kick from assertive spices had my husband repeatedly reaching for his ice water. But he still managed to clean the bowl.
The sampler plate ($18) was a plateful of joy. The kefta are lovely, mouth-watering patties of highly seasoned ground lamb, rich with the earthy flavors of cumin, cayenne and (I think) cinnamon. To write about them is to crave them again. The dolma were pleasantly tangy and perfectly tender (grape leaves can sometimes be unpleasantly stringy). The falafel were doughier and less grainy than some I have eaten. These were more like fritters, but were delicious nonetheless. The flavorful spanakopita was light and fluffy — almost like a quiche. Also on the plate were a cool and minty tzatziki, a savory spiced tahini sauce and ample pita points for dipping. Conversation gave way to noshing.
My husband ordered the lamb shawarma ($24) while I opted for the Poulet de Casablanca ($21). This was intended to be strategic on my part because this dish features lemon and olives — two ingredients my husband is not in love with — thinking they would prevent him from tucking into my plate too robustly. Meanwhile, and perhaps meanly, I always get to share his dish due to … ahem … professional obligation. Is this fair? Not at all. Am I sorry? Not at all.
However, my plans were foiled. The chicken dish was not, as I had expected, aggressively piquant or acidic. The sharper flavors of olive and lemon were tempered by a decadent creamy sauce subtly seasoned with the distinct taste of saffron. For once, he got his fair share. Resentment seethed.
It dissipated, however, with one taste of the shawarma. The dish is simple — a heap of thinly cut leg of lamb piled onto seasoned rice. This meat is beautifully tender and simply, but perfectly, seasoned. I'm sorry to say that we both completely ignored the perfectly respectable side dish of steamed vegetables.
We were too full to appreciate the appetizing dessert menu, but my husband had the foresight to order baklava to-go ($6). I can't tell you how it tasted because he wrote, in rather aggressive Sharpie, a stern "hand's off" warning on the paper bag. He was, however, generous enough to share his opinion — two thumbs-up — both thumbs being his.
Aladdin's isn't exactly reinventing the wheel. They don't have to. With its warm hospitality, well-prepared comfort food and convivial atmosphere, the one they have is spinning nicely. And you don't have to have a long list of memories in order to enjoy this Midtown gem. I suggest you go and make your own.
Hours: Open 5-9 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; closed Sunday-Wednesday
4240 Old Seward Highway, Suite 20
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org and 907-561-2373