What Legally Blonde is to shopping malls, I am to restaurants. I can walk down the aisle of a shopping mall - mega sales screaming out from all ends and bags and shoes and clothes and all that other bait those shop assistants stock up in the window - like a horse with blinders. It's not self-control, it's just that I don't care (sorry Dubai with all your malls and bling. I. just. don't. care.) BUT, whether it's walking down a street, or in a mall, or anywhere, anytime, my eyes automatically snap open, all senses perk up, if I'm around a new, unfamiliar restaurant. I really should carry around a little notepad where I can jot down all the tiny places I run across before the other tiny places I see the next day elbow them out of my brain. It could be my secret little Black Book of Restaurants. Guarded with my life. Never given up for anything. Not even for that 65% sale* at Mango. Black book strategy, you're going down on my 2012 resolution list (this year's yellow post-it of 2011 resolutions is all out of space.)
*selected items only
One such recent restaurant discovery was Naghshejahan. Discovered it on my little evening run around the block...run run run - ooo new Iranian restaurant, when did that happen, mmm kebabs, must come back - run run run...I did come back to the place with my folks on a Friday evening, many Fridays ago, and have been sitting on writing about the experience because __________________ [fill in the blank with your favorite excuse]
Naghshejahan had all the markings of a newcomer - spanking shiny walls, eager beaver waiters flitting around......and totally empty. It felt even more deserted because the place was huge, with the sense of space being further amplified by the grand Iranian designs running through their walls and decor. My 2 cents - new restaurants should start off as tiny shacks, fill 'em up with people, start bursting at the seams and have indecent New York like wait times [scarcity does wonders to build up hype and your customer base], and then open doors to the grand arena. Because when I see an empty restaurant, I'm not going to be hopping up and down with excitement to run in to grab a bite.
Next up, a basket of warm Iranian bread. Of the three Iranian places I've tried in the city, each one has a different take on their bread. They're all usually some mix of soft tender spots with crispy golden brown bubbles, and for some reason unbeknownst to me (do people even say unbeknownst anymore?), turn into chewy cardboard way faster when they cool as compared to other Italian or Indian breads.
...UNLESS, you preempt the cardboard phase altogether by ploughing your way through the entire bread basket in minutes, which usually happens if Borani Esfanaj hits the table. Borani Esfanaj is that wondrous Iranian crowd pleaser of a dip that's made of sour lemony yogurt, specks of green spinach and an olive oil strand that dissolves into the dip as you scoop up creamy dollops of it with your bread. This was definitely the high point of the meal.
For mains, we ordered grilled fish...which was so bland and forgettable that I really can't recall how it tasted, or even what sort of fish it was. Forgettable fish you, I ain't wasting tummy space on you next time.
Now the critical test of a high quality Iranian restaurant is its ability to skewer out insanely tender and flavorful kababs. We ordered the mixed platter, with every kind of kabab under the sun - chicken (joojeh), beef, lamb, all crammed on a plate in their different forms, minced long ones (sheekh style...also called koobideh), wings, boneless and bone-in.
Typically, Iranian kababs I've tried in the past really retain the focus on the grilled flavors and juices of the meat, but Naghshejahan seemed to add a different twist to the typical kabab with spices and flavors that went beyond the meat itself. The two most flavorful kababs on the plate were the smokey beef boneless kabab, and the chicken (bone-in) pieces that seemed infused with some sort of mustard-spiked marinade.
Now, when I bit into the kababs, I was ready for the OMG, it's Smokey, it's Juicy, and it's M-E-L-T-I-N-G in mah mouth like Butter! reaction that I usually have at Iranian restaurants...and here, as I braced myself for the same euphoric sensation, I bit into the beef kabab and thought - smokey...juicy...M-E-L...No. Chew darn it, CHEW! The kababs totally lacked that exceptionally tender, fall-apart-on-your-tongue quality that Iranian kababs are known for...and no blend of interesting spices can make up for sub par kabab texture. I'd rather have just held those kababs on my tongue until all those deep smokey juices had been exuded, and then discreetly eject the remaining juiceless kabab from my mouth and move on to the next piece because it was a pain to chew through the rest of the meat. Not something to be done in public of course, but if I were alone...
I'm usually not a rice person, but I do have a weak spot for Iranian chalow with those tangy red barberries that I raved on about when I described my meal at See See Saghi. What takes the rice to a whole other flavor level, beyond just perfectly steamed and fluffy, are (a) the barberries. I am truly madly deeply in love with those barberries. and (b) an optional sprinkling of that addictive lemony spice called Sumac. Exercise the option folks, ALWAYS BATHE YOUR RICE IN SUMAC. I think there should be a sumac shaker next to every salt and pepper shaker everywhere. Sumac on rice, sumac on fries, sumac on chicken sandwiches, sumac on veggies, sumac licked off the plate when there's nothing else left to eat it with...
and a complimentary side (love the newbie restaurant honeymoon phase when they ply you with free stuff) of sugary biscuits that may have been pretty to look at, but I was positive that they'd have that over-sugared, dry crumbly texture that wasn't worth wasting my time on. Except that mom insisted I try one, and true enough, it wasn't worth wasting my time on. Mom, I told you so.
Now Naghshejahan has some pretty stiff competition in my neighborhood. You've got my all-time favorite and kabab heavyweight, Sadaf, less than a five minute drive from this newbie, and Shabestan, the upscale Iranian restaurant overlooking the Deira creekside at the Radisson Blu. Though as that perceptive sister of mine noticed, this place may actually be owned by the same guys as those running Sadaf - the plates had the Sadaf logo imprinted on it. And if it is run by the same team as Sadaf, then I hope one of the Sadaf cooks hops down from their heavenly kabab-producing kitchens and teaches these guys how to buy the best meat, and grill it to tender perfection. Until that happens, Naghshejahan won't be making my list of memorable Iranian joints in the city anytime soon.
Al Maktoum Street, Deira Dubai
(I couldn't get their number for the life of me...not on the internet, not on 181...I'll try to jot it down when I run past them next)