Ali Baba Tandoor is so chilly some nights, that you'll find yourself eating in your coats. So when squares of warm naan arrive, along with little bowls of hot red chutney, mint sauce, and yogurt, they're especially welcome. So is a light, aromatic, red-lentil soup, which comes to the table compliments of the house.
This house began as Buzkashi restaurant, named for the national Afghan sport; buzkashi, a kind of rough polo, is played with a calf or goat carcass. As owner Javaid Aziz tells it, after two years in business, his restaurant customers convinced him that the name buzkashi was not conducive to enjoying a meal. The restaurant became Ali Baba Tandoor one and a half years ago. A miniature saddle, hanging on a wall, is a reminder of the old name.
The cuisine of Afghanistan is spicy, but mildly so, and except for the chutney, not at all hot. Plates arrive with pillow-sized portions of two kinds of rice - challow, in which the grains are cooked, seasoned with cumin, then baked; or pallow, another baked rice with more spices and oil.
You'll find dishes here that are also Turkish (like Ali Baba's dumplings, called mantwo, which are "mantu" in Turkey); Persian (pallow with raisins and glazed carrot strips); and Indian or Pakistani (several curries).
In fact, Aziz is Pakistani; he was born in Kashmir, India; raised in Lahore, Pakistan; and has lived in Cambridge for the last four decades. As a boy, his family's cook was often Afghan because his father preferred their food. "The fat is removed and it is healthy," says Aziz. He knows Kabul, because it was "a very cosmopolitan city," where his family went often for visits.
Ali Baba isn't anything like Helmand, the East Cambridge restaurant with stunning yellow walls, deep red carpets, and stylish presentations. This Porter Square spot is rough and ready, the food more like someone's home cooking, the wait staff not quite able to keep up with people entering all evening, sweeping drafts through the room. A large grill at one end, surrounded by plexiglass walls, fills the place with a delightful smoky smell that makes you hungry. But it looks odd plunked down in the dining room.
Some of the little white dishes on the table are sleek and beautiful, but most of the decor, including rugs here and there, seems like an afterthought. The food, however, is all homemade - bread, dumpling wrappers, even ice cream. To add to the homey feel, the waitress sets a dish down in the middle of the table and announces, "Your dinner is served."
We're warmed by the lentil soup and the very good flat bread. The red chutney is the best of the three condiments, its heat welcome with the dishes that start arriving. Mantwo ($5 appetizer; $11 entree) are beautiful little beef dumplings, layered with cool yogurt sauce. That sauce keeps appearing, on potato bowlani ($5), described as pan-fried pastry shells on the menu, but really tender potato-filled crepes; on banjan ($5), which are fried eggplant slices; and on kaddo ($5), overly sweet butternut squash that comes with or without ground beef sauce (there are nine vegetarian choices on the menu).
Most main courses come with challow or pallow, and many with sauteed spinach that has so much flavor and body, the mounds almost stand on the plate. All the meat here is halal, slaughtered according to Islamic law. Kourma challow ($13) is one of the lamb curries, which isn't very distinctive; qabelee ($14) hides spoon-tender lamb shank under the slightly sweetened carrot pallow.
We see our order of dwopizia ($15), leg of lamb, being grilled; the slightly dry, smoky chunks of meat come with sauteed mushrooms and a splendid slice of naan topped with sauteed yellow peas and onions. Also off the grill is chicken seekh kebab ($12), moist, spicy ground meat, shaped into narrow logs.
It's hard to figure out the fereney ($4), described as a cream pudding. Aziz tells me later on the phone that it's made with rice. At first the taste is smoky, then the unmistakable flavor of scorched milk comes through. Too bad, it might have been a lovely dessert. Sheerekh ($4) is an ice cream without yolks, smooth and delicious with pistachio, figs, and pineapple. The hit of the night is pistachio baklava ($4), shaped like a bird's nest, hardly sweetened with very crunchy pastry, warmed in the oven in a delicate little fluted dish. It makes me think that with a few adjustments, a curtain along the door, an extra pair of hands in the kitchen, the entire menu could easily be this good.