10921 Roselle Street, Sorrento Valley
This Thanksgiving, for once, I was neither cooking for a crowd nor eating with a crowd. It’s been an exhausting year, so John and I decided we were overdue for a long weekend of lazy football watching and catching up with the backlog of shows on our DVR. That is how we came to watch the premiere episode of On the Rocks, one of the latest entries into the already glutted restaurant/bar makeover genre. The show itself is no better or worse than others, but this one featured a renovation of Sorrento Valley’s Ali Baba’s Cave, a hookah bar/restaurant with some of the most outlandish decorating this side of Las Vegas.
I’d been to Ali Baba’s Cave once before, and my only memory of it was that nothing on the bar menu or the restaurant menu seemed appealing, and our server was so disinterested that she seemed to be suffering from narcolepsy.
The makeover team changed the name of the place to Club 805, in keeping with it’s location near the I-805/I-5 exchange. A quick look on the internet showed that the owner had already changed the name to AJ’s Cave. Not a good omen. Also not a good omen – the outside sign wasn’t lit, even though it was well past dark. It was hard to tell if the place was even open. When we left an hour later, it was still not turned on.
The makeover appears to be little more than covering the garish murals with black paint, making some cheap picnic tables and new bar shelving out of 2x4s, updating the pendant lamps, and nailing some scrap wood to the wall. Depending on whether you believe reality television or not, they “discovered” that Ali Baba’s infamous “caves” are poured concrete and could not be removed (at least not without heavy machinery and major reconstruction costs) so they decide to work around them. The smell of newly cut wood and varnish is still pronounced.
I was hoping for a seat at the bar, but unfortunately, the makeover designer chose to put a large pendant lamp rather low over one entire area, giving it the feel of an old-timey interrogation room.
Our enthusiastic server/bartender was over in a flash, and quickly explained the happy hour options as well as the full menu. With my gin and tonic came the first good omen – freshly cut citrus. True, it was a lemon, not the proper lime wedge, but still. I’m surprised by how often I get nasty, brown-edged citrus in my cocktails, even at upscale places charging far more for a simple drink. My spirits were brightening, and not just from the gin.
I had ordered hummus, baba ganoush and tabouleh from the happy hour menu and a falafel appetizer plate from the regular menu. Another surprise — my first bite of hummus on warm, soft, toasty pita bread was bright, lemony, garlicky, and creamy smooth. Really good.
My apprehensions were further allayed by the tabouleh. It was ultra-fresh. Sharp lemon played nicely with the grassy, pungent parsley and chewy bulgur wheat. The tomato chunks were firm, juicy and sweetly acidic, not soggy from sitting around since yesterday. It had a bit of spicy kick too.
The baba ganoush made me a believer. Not only was it wonderfully smoky and earthy, but the color was a beautiful light cream, not that awful grey that comes from poor preparation. The falafel were a bit too uniform looking to suggest they were house made, but they were spicy, crunchy, herby and piping hot, along side a generous cup of nutty tahini sauce. Premade, perhaps, but at least good quality.
Our server comped us two pieces of baklava for dessert. I love ultra-sweet desserts, and it didn’t disappoint. The crispy phyllo and decadent, sticky honey had just a hint of warm cardamom, a perfect, bite-sized indulgence.
Regarding the revolving door of names, perhaps it was wise to go back to the "cave" theme. There's no way that AJ's can be mistaken for a "club" in the usual sense of the word, and it does have those caves in all their kitschy glory. It's sort of like the Madonna Inn — you go there anticipating cheesy decorating. Why not just have fun with it?
AJ’s Cave is still grappling with service and consistency issues — we observed a few minor ones while we were there, and a quick perusal of social media reviews show the wide fluctuations typical of a struggling business. I hope they can pull it together.