Dining Out: Fire and Spice
Azita Bina-Seibel was born to run a restaurant—a comfortably elegant Persian restaurant serving the food of her native Iran. This wasn't clear to me when I began merrily arguing with her even before Ristorante Toscano, the first restaurant she co-owned, opened on Beacon Hill. Why, she barely spoke Italian. How could she represent what would be Boston's first experience of Italian food as it is really served in Italy? Just fine, it turned out. She knew about food prepared to show off its true flavors—the mark of a cook with food in her soul. Azita is a firebrand, quick to take exception at a chance remark and even quicker to explain a dish she grew up loving so that you'll love it too.
Though she learned to run a satisfying and inviting restaurant when she opened Azita, a trattoria serving rustic Italian food in the South End, she didn't come into her own until she and her brother, Babak Bina, her partner at Azita Ristorante, decided to gamble on serving the food of their childhood. They made their decision just as that very food was being hailed as the next great cuisine we all had to discover now that the remotest Tuscan hill town had been stripped bare. The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean, a seminal 1994 book by Paula Wolfert, put onto the culinary map the countries that had by then reappeared on the world map after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Azita had always told her customers that Azerbaijan, her family's homeland, was the Tuscany of the Middle East, with cuisine that featured clear flavors and a premium on seasonal fruit and herbs. Now she showed them how.
Lala Rokh opened in 1995 in the cozy but surprisingly rambling former quarters of Another Season, where Odette Bery had given Beacon Hill restrained and elegant French food. The restaurant immediately conveyed the feeling of being served dishes that had been made in someone's home for honored guests. What a gift to have a family that wants to bring us the best of its food from afar—not to mention the series of friends and relatives who regularly return from Iran with fresh supplies of some of the staples that are nearly unobtainable here. It's like a standing invitation to the sort of Persian household a Beacon Hill resident might well have an introduction to on a trip to Iran: art-filled, cultured, calm. But never staid—at least not when Azita's around. Her frankness sees to that.
Anyone can delve right into the menu, with or without advance preparation. What at first reading seems intimidatingly complex proves, on tasting, to be more familiar than exotic. There are unusual Oriental tastes, yes: dried Persian lime, ground to a powder; air-dried Iranian rose petals, delicate and distinctive; fenugreek, one of the usually anonymous components of curry that is quite pronounced on its own; barberry, a tart, dry-tasting berry akin to the cranberry but subtler. In season, Azita buys crates of sweet-tart pomegranate and quince, the grapes and apples of the eastern Mediterranean, employed in savory and sweet dishes alike. And always there is the liberal use of fresh greens such as cilantro, parsley, and spinach (no wonder Azita felt at home with Florentine food). Feta and homemade yogurt make fleeting appearances, as do those ever-so-healthful legumes, split peas and chickpeas.
Flavors are meant to meld: There's something wrong if you get only one of these flavors. Cooking times are often very long, sometimes days, in order to produce smooth, harmonious wholes. Final touches of lemon and herbs, and a series of vividly flavored condiments served with each dish, ensure that dishes always taste bright. Once you have a few meals at Lala Rokh, you find yourself craving certain tastes, wondering when you can next invite yourself over. Here are just a few of the things I crave after a few recent visits. From the appetizers, zaitun-e parwardeh ($7), the zingiest olive spread I've had in a long time, the saltiness tempered by walnuts, and the zing from fresh pomegranate juice; mirza ghasemi ($7), with the potent smoke of grill-charred eggplant softened and accented by roasted garlic and fresh tomato; long triangles of kookoo sabzi ($5, and don't you want to order it just to say the name a few times?), a mysteriously purple-black frittata-like cake of green herbs, walnuts, and barberries, light yet substantial and with a faint bitter undertone. The soups are just what homemade soups should be: full of fresh vegetables; thick with long-cooked grains like wheat, barley, or rice; and made lively by the addition of tomatoes, unripened grape juice, or, in the case of abghur a ash ($6), fresh herbs and dried plums. Those plums unexpectedly add a mellowly acidic flavor rather than sweetness, and a nearly hidden one at that.
The main courses feature generous portions of top-quality meat and poultry. It's easy, though, to build vegetarian meals with the highly flavored vegetables and sauces around them; the kitchen is very open to removing meat from many dishes and will tell strict vegetarians just which ones can be adapted. My favorite main course, as it happens, is not one of those. It is ghormeh sabzi ($17), chunks of braised leg of lamb simmered in lamb stock with dried lime and a number of pungent herbs to create the most alluring and fragrant stew I tried. Azita told me that one of her waiters works four shifts a week and has the lamb each time, changing only the condiment to create a different meal. I can imagine doing the same thing, although I'd also want to dip a ladle into the saffron-colored split peas served with a veal stew, just because I loved them so much. The sauce for that stew (gheimeh, $14) has lots of lemon and saffron too, but, as with the ghormeh sabzi, the end impression is fresh, fresh, fresh.
That freshness, and the mix-and-match variety of condiments—the relishes, called torshi, are variously spiked with garlic, mango, and tamarind, more of that unripened grape juice, and dried herbs imported from Iran—is what keeps Lala Rokh high on the list of restaurants to return to and rely on. There's also the exceptional quality of the staff: Waiters are practically as well informed and well spoken about the potentially scary dishes as the owners themselves, a tribute to Babak's experience and patience in training. Another reason to return often is the low tab, which Azita told me results partly from the fact that she and her brother own the space outright. Prices are, in fact, about to rise but by a modest degree, keeping this an exceptional bargain in a ritzy neighborhood.
The wine list is short and functional, with sharply defined, spicy wines including Tocai and Sancerre to play against the food, and the desserts (all $5.75) are wonderfully original. The baqlava has almonds and pistachios; the slices from a log are tiny and bite-sized, like crisp petits fours. The crème caramel is an ideal flan, light as a lemon pudding. The must-go-back-for dessert is paludeh, a lime sorbet frozen with little lengths of thin and crunchy rice noodles and spiked with rose water. In excess, rose water can taste like perfume, but here it seems simply fragrant and marvelously refreshing. Azita says it's good for digestion—one of many folk food remedies she and her family claim are good for what ails you. Given the dishes they so carefully prepare and serve, I'm willing to believe them all.