Mideast meets Midwest
Grazing encouraged by lots of little dishes at Magic Aladdin in Corryville

BY POLLY CAMPBELL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Tuesday night in Corryville. There's a line around the corner at BW-3 Grill & Pub for 20-cent wing night. A different crowd is lined up outside Bogart's to see Leo Kottke and Iris DeMent.

People are getting tattooed, others are copying research grant applications at Kinko's. Still others are watching the NBA playoffs at the sports/ribs joint.

Magic Aladdin Restaurant
**1/2

Food: Fair.

Service: Good.

Atmosphere: Fair.

Value: Good.

What: Palestinian-owned cafe serving Middle Eastern standards.

Where: 2633 Vine St., Corryville.

When: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday and 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday.

Recommended dishes: Baked kibbe, Arabic salad, Lebanese salad, chicken tawook, meat shawarma.

Vegetarian choices: Spinach pie, falafel, baba ghanoush, stuffed grape leaves.

Prices: Appetizers and salads: $2.25-$5.95; entrees $7.95-$10.95; desserts 95 cents-$1.25.

Reservations: Accepted.

Sound level: 70-72 decibels when the Middle Eastern videos are playing. (Most restaurants range from 60 decibels, a dignified calm, to 90 decibels, a din).

Miscellaneous: Takeout, catering, children's menu, high chairs. No alcohol. No-smoking section isn't distinctly separated from smoking section. Not wheelchair-accessible.

Paying for it: American Express, MasterCard, VISA, Discover, Diner's

Phone: 861-2533

Since February, the Magic Aladdin Restaurant has been in the middle of these diverse activities. More upscale restaurants have foundered here, at the corner of Vine and Charlton, but Middle Eastern food is inexpensive -- ethnic but accessible.

The cultural crossroads continues inside, where a wide-screen TV plays Middle Eastern music videos, a guy in flamingo-pink hair sits between a table of chain-smoking men speaking Arabic and folks are engrossed in a serious academic discussion nearby.

The restaurant is owned by Palestinian brothers Sami and Raed Jallaq. Their menu is a greatest hits compilation of Middle Eastern cooking standards: shish kebab, hummus, falafel, kibbe, tabbouleh. It's the burgers and fries of Middle Eastern cuisine.

Variety of salads

What makes the basic menu interesting is the sampling of salads served with the entrees. One night there were four. Arabic salad is a simple combination of chopped cucumbers, tomatoes and onions. Another chopped-vegetable dish resembled salsa, including a subtle spiciness. Some of that mixture was folded into another dish of extra-rich yogurt for a creamy-spicy dip for pita bread. Best was the roasted eggplant, mixed with olives and onions.

Only a few of these salads were repeated on another night, when eight little dishes were served with the entrees. Tiny cubes of lemon, rind and all, were mixed into the Arabic salad. Variations on cucumber salad included one with a yogurt and dill dressing, another in tahini sauce. Turkish salad was similar to the salsa dish, but spicier, with a thick, sweet red sauce.

The Magic Aladdin isn't the most relaxing atmosphere, with alarmingly bright cerise walls, Middle Eastern music and a large, wood-floor dining room.

Nevertheless, the more little dishes in front of me, the happier I am, and I graze leisurely. The young servers are breezy and friendly, not completely versed on the menu, but efficient.

Appetizers make a meal

The generous selection of salads makes appetizers superfluous if you're ordering an entree, but you could order your whole meal from the appetizer section. If you're eating vegetarian, that would be the best choice.

Falafel ($5.95) is a meatless but substantial dish: super-crunchy deep-fried nuggets of chick-pea puree served with tahini dipping sauce. Stuffed grape leaves come in vegetarian and lamb versions ($5.95). The meatless ones have nothing but rice inside -- mushy rice at that.

You would be better off with the starter combo ($3.95). Unctuously smooth hummus holds a little pool of olive oil, while the smoothness of baba ghanoush is cut with the astringent bite of eggplant. Lemony tabbouleh is mostly the green brightness of parsley, mixed with a little bulgur wheat and scallions. Fool ($4.95) is something like hummus -- fava beans, rather than garbanzos, are cooked and partially pureed into a dip. But it's not as flavorful, tasting almost exclusively of sharp white vinegar.

Shish kebabs, shawarma

Entrees focus on meat. I ordered the house special, a variety of shish kebabs, meat shawarma and kibbe (the most expensive thing on the menu at $15.95) and had more meat than I could eat. Shish kebabs -- skewered and broiled cubes of meat -- is a specialty that even the most ethnic-skeptical eater will like. They'll remind you of backyard barbecues.

Shish Tawook, or chicken skewers ($7.95), are beautifully cooked, tender, a little lemony. Shish Kabob ($9.95) is offered in lamb or beef tenderloin, though they didn't have lamb either night I was there. And there's Shish Kafta (7.95), ground meat and onions formed into sausage-like shapes and skewered.

Meat shawarma ($7.95) is an elemental kind of food: a pile of flavorful meat roasted into chewy shreds and served with buttered basmati rice.

Less familiar, perhaps, is kibbe, the classic Lebanese dish: Cracked wheat and ground meat are kneaded and then baked ($5.95) or fried ($3.95). The thickly crusted torpedoes are scented subtly with cinnamon.

There is a photo of something called ghallaba on the menu, but no price or description. (It's $10.95. Our waiter said it was sauteed liver, onions, and various other ''innards.''). My friend sprang for that, but apparently not many people are as adventurous and the dish no longer has any liver or innards, just pieces of steak.

Finish with sweetmeat

Desserts (95 cents-$1.25), which the restaurant purchases, are brought around on a tray. They are all dense little sweetmeats, soaked in syrup. The baklava, full of pistachios, was very good, as was another with flaky pastry surrounding a dark caramelized filling flavored with rosewater, also with pistachios.

A farina-based cake might have been good a week earlier. Arabic coffee (95 cents) is amazing: a tiny demi-tasse of thick black liquid, sweet and scented with cardamom. Once drunk, the tiny cup is half full of a sludge of coffee grounds and sugar. Hot tea is lower-octane, served in short glasses, freshened with green mint leaves. A perfect meal-ender.

Reviews are done anonymously at Enquirer expense. Ratings take into consideration quality of food, service, presentation and atmosphere, balanced against price.

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