Until recently, few restaurants in Central Arkansas offered Mediterranean cuisine. Some, like Sherwood's Athenian Grill and Little Rock's Leo's Greek Castle, offered gyros and baklava, but not much more. Maybe it's the influence of the ever-popular Greek Food Festival each May that brings thousands to town, or maybe it's just our changing tastes. But more restaurants like Layla's and Istanbul Mediterranean Cuisine and Taziki's are popping up.
There are two new contenders in the Mediterranean category. One, Albasha Grill, opened at the end of August in the location vacated by New York NY Deli a few months ago. We dropped in for a try.
The decor has been cleaned and updated, but you won't find the typical Middle Eastern wall art and shtick here. The soda fountain machine wasn't even ready for business, but the staff had conscientiously provided a large cooler case full of the usual suspects along with a variety of fruit juices for washing down meals. Food is ordered at the counter and then brought to the table.
We chose three different dishes. One of our companions went for the Albasha Special ($10.99), a choice of three skewers of meat, beef tenderloin, lamb, kefte kebab or chicken. The tenderloin wasn't ready that day, so our companion chose one of each of the other three. The lamb was much more tender than we expected; usually kebabed lamb comes out a bit charred and tough, but here it was more crisp surface and pot roast tender interior. The kefte kebab was barely spiced, more American ground beef than exotic experience.
Another companion chose the Chicken Kebabs ($9.99) and was overwhelmed by the three fat skewers that were heavy on meat and well spiced, too. Portions were ample and succulent.
We went for the chicken shawarma Plate ($8.99). The shaved-from-the-roaster chicken was spice-hinted and lemon-tinted, unexpectedly different from the kebab offerings.
Dinners come with a choice of yellow rice or a perfectly balanced hummus that's not too thick and not too creamy. They also come with hot (almost too hot to handle) pita bread and Jerusalem salad, a mix of finely diced tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, bell peppers in a minted marinade that's both light and pleasant, and which can be ordered by itself for $2.99. The falafel, by the way, is an un-spicy but acceptable set of patties sold three for a dollar.
We also had a chance to check out the other new entry in the Mediterranean market, Alibaba Mediterranean Cuisine (spelled that way on the menu and Ali Baba on the sign outside). Unlike the clean crisp interiors of Albasha Grill, the interior of the restaurant (the old Discount Records store back in the day) is packed with merchandise. A low wall separates a handful of booths in the front of the restaurant and the grocery store and Halal butchery in the back. Once again, no soda fountain, but you can choose a beverage from a case full of the exotic (Vimto and yogurt drinks) and the expected (Pepsi and Coke in glass bottles).
We ordered the Alibaba Special Plate ($11.99) but found later that we were actually served the Combination Plate ($10.99). Call it a lack of communication. The difference between the two is simply a couple of falafel and a couple of dolmas. What we were given and overwhelmed with was a combination of beef kebab, chicken and kefte kebab with salad and pita and a choice of rice or hummus. The beef and chicken were nicely charred, but what really sealed the deal was the incredibly well seasoned kefte kebab, undoubtedly the best we've tried in Central Arkansas. Slivers of pickled turnips and tiny green olives with pits complete the plate.
Our companion chose the Lamb Shish Kebab plate ($9.99), which came with all the same sides as the Alibaba Special Plate. The lamb wasn't quite as spiced or as tender as the offering at Alibasha Grill, but it was served in large hunks off the skewer.
The hummus at Alibaba was far creamier than typical, and the little dollop of Arabic salad was tart with lemon juice and crisp red onions.
The two entries into the genre both have the potential to be stars. Alibaba's location near UALR apparently brings in a good college crowd of professors and students. For Albasha Grill, it's far too early to tell if it will survive in a location that's been the doom of several previous restaurants.
302 N. Shackleford Road (across from Kroger)
11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.
Credit cards accepted. No alcohol.
Alibaba Mediterranean Cuisine
3400 S. University Ave.
10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Sunday.
Credit cards accepted. No alcohol.
Albasha Grill offers, incongruously, a Philly cheesesteak. Albasha isn't serving desserts yet; Alibaba's are pre-boxed cookie varieties; you can choose which sampler box you want for $4.99. We picked out a box and were rewarded with phyllo-and-nut based sourota and kataifi, pistachio cookies and melomacharona honey sweets.