Thursday, September 27, 2012

When Bad Service Trumps Good Food: A Conundrum with Ali Baba in Troy

A take-home dessert from Ali Baba
I want it to be all about the food.

I'll work hard to make it that way.  I'll make excuses for lousy service, pretend the wait for the food only seemed that long.  I am aware that such behavior on my part can be annoying.  But I can't help it--usually.

Ali Baba, a Turkish restaurant in Troy that serves some very good food, pushed me over that edge the last time I dined there.  This was our second visit; the first was shortly after moving here, when K and I drove her mother down that row of dilapidated housing on 15th Street.  Our expectations were modest considering the neighborhood and that I got myself flashed at and hollered at by a Troy cop while parking (for not signaling early enough; I assume the officer noticed my North Carolina plates).  Yet the lavash bread and the phenomenal ajuka to go with it all made the trip more than worthwhile.  My future mother-in-law, who knows her food, was still talking about it weeks after returning to Las Vegas.

So when K's Turkish friend, F, visited from Boston a few weeks ago, of course we had to take her to Ali Baba.  But while the food still mostly stood up to the tastes of our first visit, the service was so off-putting that K and I aren't likely to return anytime soon.

Let me back-track for a moment.  As I said, we're talking about some really good and unique food here.

The most striking part of dining at Ali Baba is the lavash bread that comes with certain appetizers.  This is Turkish lavash, also known as balloon bread, a huge, puffed-out version that's covered in butter and poppy seeds.  It's perfect for scooping up the yogurt sauce or ajuka--a paste of roasted eggplants and red peppers--and quite fun to tear apart.

An example of Turkish lavash
I made a poor choice for my entree that first time around, getting the Kofta Guvech, which featured meatballs, eggplant, tomatoes, onions, and green peppers in casserole form, but was smothered in an oily mess of melted cheese.  K was quite happy with her Eggplant Kabob--which had more lamb than eggplant, a fact she was informed about when ordering--and her mother had the Chicken Shish, which featured moist and tender chicken that was clearly marinated prior to cooking.

Finally, there was a dessert of baklava, a moister version than you get at most places--the layers of phyllo dough were smothered in a sweet syrup, which I thought paired exceptionally well with the pistachio on the baklava.

So yes, the food was mostly very good.  It was the same way on our second visit, with F, though I proved Split Enz wrong and showed that sometimes history does indeed repeat itself--I ordered poorly in a different way, going with the Lamb Shish that was overcooked and dried out.  Still, K enjoyed the Chicken Iskender and F liked her Kofte Iskender--dishes featuring their proteins served in a tomato and yogurt sauce--and there were a lot of interesting, tasty, and authentic (according to F) dips on the Large Appetizer plate.  We also picked up a dessert to eat at home, what I believe is a version of kadaif, a pastry made with shredded phyllo dough (pictured at the top of the page).


Let's start small, with things that normally might be brushed off.  The Large Appetizer plate, which was $15, featured two small stuffed grape leaves and several dips, yet the lavash that came with it was smaller than the one we received on our previous visit, when we only had the ajuka.  We weren't given water at the beginning of our meal; finally we asked after our appetizers were delivered, and still had to wait ten more minutes to get it.  It took a fifteen minute wait to be served water by our waitress, who was later too busy sweeping up the floor to get K a refill (F waved over one of the cooks, who did bring over more water).

We arrived at the restaurant at 9:15, well before the closing hour of 11 listed on the door sign at Ali Baba.  But rarely did we feel comfortable during our meal.  Our waitress moved on from sweeping to mopping the floor at 9:45.  Before 10, with half of our food still uneaten, she delivered the check to the table and said, "You need to pay right now.  We're closing."  We got to-go containers for our food, and when the waitress returned with the credit card receipt, she stood next to the table and said, "You need to sign this now.  We're closing the cash register" (which led to an overly generous tip, which K later regretted).

Shortly after 10 we were back on the sidewalk, juggling our three full containers of food, despite almost an hour to go until closing--we double-checked the hours as we left--and a nearly $70 bill to show for it. 

This might be a freak occurrence for patrons at Ali Baba.  It certainly wasn't our experience the first time dining there.  And while we always are eager to support local, family-owned businesses, we also want to be treated well.

There are other options.  There always will be.  Maybe not all so interesting, maybe not so good.  Lots of chain restaurants are serious about quality control and sharp customer service--it's hard not to appreciate that more after an experience like the one we had at Ali Baba. 

I'm not going to sit here and tell anyone to avoid Ali Baba, or tell you to expect bad service there.  There's a good chance you'll enjoy your meal next time you visit.  But after the way Ali Baba nearly ruined our evening, we'll be looking elsewhere.

Ali Baba Restaurant is located at 2243 15th Street in Troy.


  1. That sucks. Truly bad service, like you experienced, would lead me to never return to a place, too. Especially when it's not the first time.

    I'm crazy about Ali Baba's chicken curry pizza, though. I'm glad we don't live close enough to eat there regularly.

  2. I suppose at some level it depends on how comfortable you are with awkward situations. I'm quite comfortable indeed. I've been called racist names to my face in Chinese restaurants, I've been the last one served in Indian places, and I've been subjected to open hostility at hole-in-the-wall pizza joints. I've returned to all of them, because their food is amazing AND an incredible value.

    You can vacuum around my chair, take all the empty plates and glassware from the table, and I'm not going to leave until I'm good and ready. Yes, I know you want me gone. But I'm there. And I'll leave when I'm done, thank you very much.

    That is of course unless I sneak in under the wire of closing time. Then, I'll be respectful of the staff and the time they've put in, and their obviously strong desire to go home. I'm just grateful that they served me in the first place, so i'll eat quickly and get out of there.

    1. Yeah, I don't doubt that at some point we will return to Ali Baba--we've certainly moved on from grievances at other quality establishments in the past. But I think this one was a little harder to take with a guest visiting, after we'd already talked up Ali Baba to her.

  3. I have had "just ok" service at Ali Baba. Never went anywhere near closing time, and I only ever get the appetizer plate. Hope your next visit will be met with better service as there is no comparable Turkish restaurant in the area.

    1. That appetizer plate is pretty great. I can get some good grape leaves from Nora's Grocery on Troy-Schenectady Rd., but that ajuka isn't something I expect to find anywhere nearby.