She took a bite of the chicken tagine, and then another, and as she chewed I could tell she was concentrating on how it tasted.
“So?” I asked. But my companion didn’t say anything. She simply shrugged.
If my duties as a food writer didn’t require otherwise, I’d probably do the same thing—ask me how my meals at Alhambra Palace were, and I’d just shrug. It’s not that I don’t have an opinion. It’s that the food was so bland and uninteresting that finding words to describe it seems fruitless; any words will be more interesting than the food they describe.
In that sense, the food at Alhambra is almost the exact opposite of the room in which it’s eaten. Outfitted with ornate tilework, gold leaf, plush fabrics and belly dancers threatening to embarrass you at every turn (though some diners don’t need much help), it’s tempting to call this the Elton John of restaurants—it is just that ostentatious and, at 24,000 square feet, large. But Elton John has talent, and that’s something Alhambra lacks.
There’s a difference between talent and skill, however, and the chefs at Alhambra do have the latter. Almost everything I tried off the small menu was cooked well, as far as technique goes. The falafel boasted a hot, crispy crust and a moist, fluffy middle; baba ghanoush was uncommonly creamy; kebabs were tender and juicy. But in terms of flavor, this is lowest-common-denominator Middle Eastern food. The hummus is easy on the tahini, the baba light on the smoke, the lentil soup has just one, familiar flavor (sweet tomato , not unlike Prego spaghetti sauce). It’s food that is so inoffensive it won’t spark a reaction in anyone. Maybe this is smart for a restaurant that has capacity for 1,400 people—that is, after all, a lot of palates to please. But people paying attention will wonder if they’re simply in a well-run cafeteria.
And actually, cafeteria might not be that far off. Both times I visited my entrées came out of the kitchen so fast they couldn’t possibly have been made to order. But if this food is premade and just waiting in the kitchen to be plated, it is more impressive for it: You’d think the scallops in the scallop tagine would get rubbery waiting around, but mine were cooked perfectly. Unfortunately, they were underseasoned, as were the couscous and innocuous tomato-pepper sauce that accompanied them. The lamb tagine suffered a similar fate: one gamey, boring note of flavor. The chicken tagine fared better than the rest, but that’s not really saying much.
The perplexing cloud that hung over both of my dinners here was that apparently James Beard Award–nominated chef Eric Aubriot was in the kitchen making all this food. Surely a chef like Aubriot would put a little salt in his food, right? And surely he’d know how to make a proper crème brûlée, not one with a limp, soggy crust like the one that arrived at my table (much better to go for the sweet, sticky, housemade baklava). I decided to call and ask him.
“Eric doesn’t work here anymore,” someone in the kitchen told me.
So it was all just a way to get us in the door, huh? Well, at least Alhambra still has its looks.