Before the stove cooled at the former Macaluso's, chef Scott Warren had taken over the lease from Tommy Macaluso; he's now preparing to reopen the space as Scotty's on 39th Street. And new tenants quickly snapped up the storefront spaces that had been Circe and, a block to the west, Addis Abba Ethiopian Restaurant. Slated to replace them, respectively, are Po's Dumpling Bar and Spitfire Grill & Wine Bar.
The same thing happened at the corner of 39th Street and Wyoming after chef-owner Marwan Chebaro closed Café Rumi. Suddenly, it seemed that Mohammed Iskandrani had turned Rumi into the Aladdin Café. This is the Jordan-born Iskandrani's second Aladdin Café; the first is on Massachussetts in Lawrence. When he opened the Kansas City location in March, he didn't have to make many changes to what had been Café Rumi's modest first-floor dining area — most of it was outside in the tent-covered parking lot.
He did spiff up the dark upstairs dining room. "We painted the walls and fixed the floor and hung carpets on the wall," Iskandrani says.
He also chopped Rumi's menu down to a more manageable size. Chebaro covered a lot more culinary territory, featuring dishes from Syria, Armenia, Lebanon, Turkey, Spain and Greece. Iskandrani sticks to more traditional Greek and Arabic fare and doesn't offer as many choices as Chebaro did, but the uncomplicated Middle Eastern dishes he does serve are excellent. In fact, on my first visit to the restaurant, I ran into an old friend, sitting at one of the outside tables, who whispered, "The food is really superior to Café Rumi's, and the lamb is extraordinary. But don't quote me, since Marwan's a friend of mine."
I'm not going to out the tabouli traitor. But it's fair to say that Mohammed Iskandrani and his sexy younger brother, Mazen (who runs the 39th Street location), have maintained Café Rumi's high standards and, in some cases, surpassed them.
The Aladdin Café's appetizer platter is the Agrabah combo, an assortment of grape leaves stuffed with rice, tomatoes and herbs; crunchy little falafel balls; feta and olives; and the silkiest hummus and baba ganoush I've tasted in a long time.
Meanwhile, my friends Lillis and Bob realized that the Aladdin Café doesn't serve booze. Patrons may smoke tobacco in a hookah at the outdoor tables, but liquor seems to be a "don't ask, don't tell" affair.
"Excuse me a minute, won't you, darling?" Lillis said before taking a brief stroll across the street. When she returned, she had a bottle of Pinot Grigio with her. "Don't ask," she said as the waitress silently presented her with a wineglass. I wanted to know where she'd purchased the vino, but Lillis only winked. "I rubbed the magic lamp, and it appeared," she said with a laugh.
Bob and I sipped iced tea and went to work on a small plate of grilled shrimp with bits of salty feta as Lillis noted the music. "It's not Arabic," she whispered. "It's light Spanish jazz. Fake flamenco." And then she roared, "I like this place."
We opted not to sit under the tent in the parking lot "patio." We settled instead into one of the tables directly inside, right under the garage doors, in the skinny little room decorated like a mod 1970s rec room. In fact, with the array of hookahs hanging to our left, this space was all too reminiscent of the rec rooms from my teen years, where decorative Persian-style water pipes were frequently put to illicit uses. Not that I ever participated in anything like that.
After our dinners arrived, Lillis giddily proclaimed that she'd ordered "the best thing." Her lamb kebab was a brilliant choice, the grilled lamb delicately marinated, tender and flavorful. "Your dinner doesn't look as good," she noted cheerily.
I sighed. I'm sorry to say that I have tasted better moussaka than Aladdin Café's dry layers: beef, a slab of eggplant and a plasterlike béchamel. Bob, however, was thrilled with that night's special: curry-marinated shawarmah chicken piled atop that smooth hummus and sided with warm pita bread. We ate so heartily that we voted against dessert and left after Lillis found some ingenious place to hide her unfinished bottle of wine. Don't ask.
I returned on a rainy weeknight with Eddie, Wendy and Sidonie, who were content not to sneak in a bottle of hooch. Sidonie raved about everything: She loved the hummus, adored the grape leaves and the grilled shrimp and even tried a falafel ball, despite insisting that she hated falafel. "It's like fried nothing," she said. But she grudgingly admitted that Aladdin Café's wasn't too bad. I think it's wonderful, especially with a bowl of Iskandrani's soothing lentil soup, a creamy, topaz-colored purée.
Eddie and former vegetarian Wendy both ordered meat kebab dishes — Sidonie was so tickled by this that she called them "the Kebabsy Twins" until Wendy became annoyed. "I'm on the Atkins diet now," Wendy confessed. "Only meat, no bread or rice." She wistfully ignored the pita and the herb-spiced rice when her succulent grilled chicken arrived. The perpetually buff Eddie ate his rice, the pita, the hunks of grilled tenderloin, and most of the spicy Arabic salad that I'd ordered for us to share — a fresh combination of cucumber, shredded carrots, tomato and parsley that was more minty than fiery.
Mazen Iskandrani later told me that the most popular dish at the restaurant is the meat kebab combo, a hefty platter of grilled lamb, beef, chicken, gyro meat and ground-beef kifta. "If you like meat, you'll love it," he said.
I do and I did. Sidonie and I were impressed that Aladdin Café's concept of gyro meat isn't the papery, compacted meat found in fast-food Mediterranean joints but thick slices of startlingly tender lamb and beef. We both piled it on wedges of soft pita and doused it with yogurt-and-cucumber tzatziki sauce.
Wendy had to pass on dessert, but the rest of us took tiny bites of a flaky but unremarkable wedge of baklava. Our real discovery was the rice pudding, flavored with rose water and served in an elegant chilled glass. Even Wendy broke down and plunged a spoon into the satiny confection. "It's too lovely to pass up," she said, licking the spoon. "And I don't even like rice pudding."
It was just another example of the kind of magic that happens on West 39th Street.