Alibaba springs a surprise

I’d never been to Alibaba till this week and the loss is entirely mine.

In all fairness, Alibaba is one of those places which doesn’t so much fly under the radar as squat indifferently under it. No one I know in Colaba has eaten there or spoken about it; I had heard good things about the Indian food long ago, but I’m not sure from whom I heard it. Compared to its swish neighbours The Table, Le Pain Quotidien and Pizza Express which attract all the attention, the 50-year old restaurant is stubbornly low key. (The night we visited only one other table was occupied)

And that’s really unfortunate because the food is surprisingly good.

I was a little less surprised about the quality after the wait staff informed me that the restaurant was owned by a Mrs Mallik who is a part of the Lamba family. The Lamba’s are famous for starting Kwality ice cream and also running a chain of Indian restaurants by the same name in Mumbai and Delhi. (All the Mumbai branches are shut but there is an outlet in Delhi). However, they still own and run another Mumbai institution – Gaylord’s at Churchgate.

Alibaba has changed its name a couple of times since it opened. Until the mid-70’s it ran as Alibaba after which, cashing in on the popularity of Chinese food, it became Hong Kong. The  only time I stepped into the restaurant was somewhere in the late 90’s because my Korean girlfriend would go there every time she felt homesick. One of their soups – I can’t remember the name of the soup but do remember it being a very hearty, one-bowl meal – was very similar to a home-style Korean soup and the restaurant occasionally attracted Korean residents living in Mumba. In the mid-noughties it returned to its origins as Alibabas Klay Oven, which subsequently (though I’m not sure when, or why) turned into Alibaba BBQ and Seafood.

The name of the restaurant is somewhat misleading giving the impression that it’s a) a Mughlai restaurant b) specialising in seafood.

What Alibaba does is great Punjabi food. But you need to order judiciously: order the galoutis, fish, Chinese and anything vaguely Lucknowi/ Hyderabadi at your peril – stick to anything that sounds Dilli-Punjabi.

Chicken Malai Kebab Alibaba, Mumbai
Chicken Malai Kebab

We started cautiously, ordering something simple that few places get wrong, but which is quite delightful when done well – a chicken malai kebab (Rs 395). This was definitely one of the better ones; the plump pieces of tikka were juicy and tender with a nice, thick coat of cream. Unfortunately, they serve it on a sizzler plate, so by the time we replenished our plates the chicken was a little overdone. The next time I’ll ask them to serve it on a regular serving dish.

The main course turned out to be even better.

Pure-bred, Old Delhi-style, the thick, heavy gravy of the butter chicken was just a tad greasy. This was not one of those butter chickens drowning in butter and smothered in masala but one that had a satisfyingly layered and complex flavour. The sweetness of the butter gave way to the tartness of the tomato and curd which was followed by the sharpness of the spices.

Onion Kulcha and Roti Alibaba, Mumbai
Onion Kulcha and Roti

I was not overly impressed by the kheema mattar, but that’s only because I like my kheema to be a spicy and greasy. The partner-in-dine however loved its simple home-style taste; it was flavourful but not overwhelmed by spices. It went rather well with the soft, filling onion kulchas.

If it wasn’t for the fact the restaurant was mostly empty mid-week, Alibaba would be a good place to bring international visitors. The absence of customers however makes it perfect for couples who want a quiet (and reasonably romantic) place to go to for dinner.

Alibaba BBQ & Seafood
Dhanraj Mahal
Apollo Bunder Road, Near Gateway Of India
Mumbai – 400005
Tel: 022 22848383

Invited by PR company  No
Guest of the chef/ restaurant  No
Restaurant knew I’m a food writer  No
Meal comped by the restaurant  No


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