A lot of you would agree with me that once you find a great dining place, you eventually get stuck to it. Being a person, who is passionate about food, and having lived in Malta for quite a while, I have to admit, I’ve been to so many restaurants over here and only few of them have become my favourites. Today’s post is dedicated to Ali Baba restaurant, a hidden gem of Malta, a place that always keeps me coming back.
For almost 30 years, this restaurant has been the first name in authentic Lebanese cuisine here in Malta, and you’ve only got to eat there once to understand why. The restaurant business is well known to be a tough and unforgiving industry, and one does not survive for almost three decades by accident. It all comes down to hard work, consistency, great service and (of course) delicious food. In short, Ali Baba has all of these things in spades.
There’s a very particular atmosphere in this restaurant, which sits tucked away in Ponsonby Street, Gzira. All at once, it feels both vividly alive and yet totally serene. The lights are dimmed, the walls are dark, and the copper detailing gives an overall feeling of warmth. I couldn’t help but feel welcomed, even when we had only just set foot inside.
This is exactly the sort of warm environment that Chef Patron Hany Harb is looking to create for his customers.
“The client is the king,” he told me as we sat inside his cherished restaurant. “Do you go out to eat because you’re hungry? No. You go out to eat because you want to have fun and enjoy yourself. So it’s our responsibility to give you that experience.”
Judging by the way people keep coming back to the restaurant after years and years, the Harb family have clearly fulfilled that responsibility. So much so that their patrons become a part of their lives- and the feeling must certainly be mutual.
“I come out to greet the people, because they’re used to it.” He tells me, with a smile. “Now instead of saying ‘we’re going to Ali Baba’, they say ‘we’re going to Hany’.”
That kind of hospitality is growing rarer and rarer in the world today, and it’s certainly part of the reason that Hany’s patrons are so loyal.
People have been dining at Ali Baba since the 1980s, when it was opened by Hany’s father, Abdul. Although the core values that make this restaurant great have stayed the same over the decades, there has certainly been a lot of change.
As soon as Hany stepped up to take over running the business from his father, there were certain changes that he was sure had to be made.
“The food is still there, the taste is still there, but we’ve gone more up-market in the sense that we became slightly more modern.” Hany explains patiently. He went on to mention that while the restaurant could no longer be called classic, it could not be called too modern either. Instead Ali Baba positions itself somewhere in between, in a kind of comfortable contemporary design which is at once functional, stylish and welcoming.
From the patterns on the wall, to the brass touches and even the lighting, Hany seems to have kept a close eye on everything in his renovated restaurant. Indeed, it is this kind of attention to detail which also makes him a successful chef.
Just as renovating the restaurant was a labour of love which took time and effort to achieve, the menu is never taken lightly.
With ingredients coming from Malta mainly, as well as from Lebanon and the Middle East, Hany carefully selects and updates his menu every six months. Seasonal ingredients produced locally are preferred, and the recipes themselves are a mix of classic Lebanese cuisine and old family recipes, though the chefs are also encouraged to be creative with their offerings.
Makdous – salt dehydrated aubergines, stuffed with walnuts, garlic and chilies and preserved in extra virgin olive oil.
Traditional Lebanese fare such as lamb tongues and veal brains, along with seafood, chicken liver and tongues are all on Ali Baba’s varying repertoire, and from my own experience, each one seems to be even more delicious than the last. No matter what I eat here, it all seems to effortlessly combine the hearty warmth of homemade food with the care and passion of a professional kitchen. A winning combination!
As with all great restaurants, the wine list receives just as much attention as the food, and I absolutely love it! It’s such an amazing pleasure to be able to compliment a delicious meal with some fine wine, and Ali Baba’s selection of wine is great. “I build it with the help of a friend of mine, Hubert Muscat. We’ve been working together for about 12 years now.”, says Hany. With that level of experience to back them up, he wants to offer nothing but the best, and his staff must know how to handle it just as well as he does.
“They have to be able to read your mind!” He insists, explaining why wine tasting is so important, not just for him and his chefs but for the entire staff. “If I’m not around, they have to know what you want.”
Under Hany’s masterful guidance, the staff at Ali Baba are all confident and friendly. They’re not just there to take orders- they understand the food that they’re serving, and I really believe that is the key. Just like with the wine, the staff taste whatever the restaurant has on offer, granting them a crucial level of familiarity with the food they are offering.
Unlike many other restaurants where you never catch a glimpse of the chef patron, at Ali Baba, Hany is always ready to meet his clients. I love seeing the way he moves around the place, going from table to table and greeting his guests. One minute he’s talking to clients, the next he is serving plates fresh from the kitchen himself, then off he goes back inside to work on another dish. For me, this makes eating here so much more than an opportunity to eat great food- it’s a cultural experience and I love it!
Hallumi Meqliy – fried halloumi cheese with fresh thyme and pitta bread crumbs, served with onion, raisins and orange compote
Suffice it to say, whatever you order at Ali Baba, you’re going to be in for a treat. The quality is so great every time I go there that it’s hard to narrow it down, but I do have a few favourites that I’d like to share with you now.
If, like me, you’re a fan of labneh, you should try Kurrat B’ Labneh. This dish consists of roasted leaks and labneh, with beautiful fresh grilled pita bread to dip into the bowl. Absolutely divine! Trust me, you will not leave a single morsel behind.
Another unmissable treat for me any time I go there is the Jibneh Baydan, a fresh and tasty salad.
Jibneh Baydah – a salad of sweet tomatoes, barrel aged feta, black olives, basil, olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice
You might already have heard people talking about the chicken livers at Ali Baba- they are the golden standard that this restaurant is famous for. Maybe you don’t need to hear one more person talk about how great they are, but I can’t resist! Delicately cooked to perfection every time, they are an unmissable dish.
Sawdat Dejej We Rebb Ir’ Rummen – chicken liver marinated in mixed spices, sautéed in garlic, lemon juice and pomegranate molasses
And of course no mention of Ali Baba’s classic dishes would be complete if it didn’t include the delicious, succulent lamb. The cutlets are simply perfect, and a fantastic choice every time in my opinion. There are other wonderful items on the menu and fresh specials too, but if you want the classic Ali Baba experience, these recommendations are a great place to start.
When it comes to their rather interesting wine list, I personally like the Italian Pinot Grigio Rose by Simon di Brazzan, which I find suits my favourite dishes rather well. Also noteworthy is the red Cannonau Sardegna, which is another excellent addition to the wine list.
Last but not least, I can’t leave dessert, can I? It’s a truly wonderful way to finish off a Lebanese feast. Knefeh Mafrookeh Bil Ashtah or Baqlewa served with strong tea or aromatic coffee is my favourite way to go. To top it all off, Hany has a great selection of digestives, including Rum Zaccappa. The prefect end to a perfect meal!
Knefeh Mafrookeh Bil Ashtah – thin angel hair pastry filled with ricotta-like cheese, oven baked and drizzled with orange blossom water and crushed pistachios
Every visit to Ali Baba is, without doubts, remarkable. I would like to thank Hany Harb and his crew for creating an amazing experience and particularly for this day, which made this post happen.
Baqlewa – layered pastries with almonds and pistachios
Ali Baba is opened for lunch from Tuesday to Saturday, from 12:00 p.m to 3:00 pm and diner from Monday to Saturday, from 6:30 pm to 10:30 pm.
Address: no. 9, Ponsonby Street, Gzira, Malta
To make a reservation call +356 21340119 or +35699450211.
Photography by Maria Shebets
Interview by Aygul Yunusova