We’ve eaten in a number of places lately that may have the shelf life of a bunch of bananas. That’s not because the food isn’t any good at Matryoshka, Mantra Masala, or Ali Baba Fine Lebanese Cuisine — far from it — but these economic climes, combined with a common and fatal flaw, will most likely result in their early demise.
And that flaw is one I point out to the deaf ears of restaurateurs all the time: IT’S TOO BIG!
Why oh why all these small businesses insist on renting more space (and tables and chairs) than they can possibly fill even on a busy night, is beyond my wildest imagination. I’m sure their razor sharp business analysis goes something like this: “If I spend a bunch on decor, and have a huge space, and fill it up, I’ll make even more gobs of money. Hooray!”
Most never consider that their staff — both kitchen and front of the house — is woefully unprepared for the crush that never comes. Take all three of these restaurants (and not to open old wounds, but IBO Turkish as well): each seats well over a hundred (maybe not MM but it’s too big by half), has one or two waiters usually struggling to keep up with the dozen or so folks that are in the joint, and obviously spent serious coin on lots of tables and chairs that never get used.
Between being overbuilt and understaffed, these joints have two strikes against them from the get go. And don’t even get me started about the menus — all of which are so voluminous in offerings that food costs are going to be double what they should be. (Memo to all restaurateurs: Cut everything in half: your menu, square footage, design budget, size of drug and/or gambling habit = make more $$$ — it’s that simple)
So what of Ali Baba? Well, it’s standard-issue Lebanese food with more hits than misses, in a giant space with a full bar surrounded by murals of Arab sheiks charging about on horseback — horses no doubt being the preferred vehicle for men in flowing robes to be charging about on — opposed to the more pedestrian camel.
Our single waiter was overmatched when we arrived to a nearly empty dining room on a mid-week night. Two other couples occupied the forlorn, huge space, making us all feel like kids being kept after school in detention. Once a large party of a dozen or so folks showed up, all hope for decent service flew out the window.
Luckily, the food arrived quickly (some might say too quickly), with the cold dishes (hummus (awful), baba ghanoush (good), labneh (check), tabouli (check)) being too cold, but most of the others — excellent grape leaves, fabulous tiny sojok spicy sausages, deep-fried, stuffed kebbeh balls — were right off the burner.
The spicy, shredded lamb was neither spicy nor shredded, but was tasty — if you like chunks of lamb sauteed with onions, tomatoes and mild peppers (Memo to restaurateurs: QUIT LABELING THINGS “SPICY” WHEN THEY AREN’T!) — and the beef shawarma okay, but hardly imbued with the sort of deep, pungent flavor you would expect from the menu description: “Tender (sort of) beef marinated for over 12 hours with traditional spices….”
The well-meaning owner apologized for the delays (our lonesome server disappeared as soon as the table for twelve arrived), and we left thinking this spot would be a great addition to the Southeast dining scene, if it can survive the folly of its size.
As for the food, Lebanese food snobs should stick with Hedary’s. Those who consider the whole region just one single hummun-ganoush’d mish-mash of mixed kebabs and mashed vegetables, will find little to complain about.
Our meal for four came to $104 + $20 tip.
ALI BABA FINE LEBANESE CUISINE
8826 South Eastern Ave.
Las Vegas, NV 89123