heart & soul food

MI­LAD PER­SIAN BISTRO

Pasatiempo - - AMUSE-BOUCHE - can Molly Boyle The New Mex­i­can

The crust forms a deeply tanned, caramelized disk, with but­tery saf­fron streaks that seep into the white mounds be­low in a be­guil­ing om­bré spec­trum. Called tahdig, it trans­lates to what it is, “the bot­tom of the pot” — a rev­e­la­tion of home­cooked rice that tends to be fought over by house­hold mem­bers, prized for a layer of crunchy gold that tops pil­lowy, fra­grant in­di­vid­ual grains. It’s been called the soul food of Per­sian cook­ing — and now it’s read­ily avail­able in Santa Fe. If you only or­der one thing at Mi­lad, the con­tem­po­rary Per­sian bistro that opened on Canyon Road last Novem­ber, get the rice. In this case, woman live by rice alone — though it turns out there are more treats in store. Small, mostly tra­di­tional plates are the heart of this mod­est but el­e­gant space carved out of an old art gallery and helmed by chef-owner Neema Sadeghi, a first-gen­er­a­tion Ira­nian Amer­i­can. When Sadeghi stays on the beaten path of clas­sic Per­sian cui­sine, he hon­ors a sto­ried culi­nary tra­di­tion that rests on the es­sen­tial grace of its fla­vor­ful rice, along with roasted meats, veg­eta­bles, stews, and sal­ads. Hall­marks of Ira­nian hos­pi­tal­ity in­clude a wide va­ri­ety of dishes and co­pi­ous amounts of food, and a diner would do well to re­mem­ber that at Mi­lad — in other words, sit down, pe­ruse the menu, then branch out and get ready to share. The kitchen has a tal­ent with egg­plant: Mirza ghasemi, a roasted au­bergine dip from north­ern Iran, is blended with toasty gar­lic and toma­toes and topped with a metic­u­lously poached egg. Fork­ing into its quiv­ery mem­brane bathes the al­ready sump­tu­ous spread in rich, yolky virtue. Per­sian cooks are fond of say­ing

“Nooshe jan,” be­fore meals, which means “May your soul be nourished” — the mirza ghasemi is a true trans­la­tion of this sen­ti­ment. It’s served with a stack of floury per­fo­rated pita that makes an am­ple ve­hi­cle for a few other ap­pe­tiz­ers, in­clud­ing the restau­rant’s con­sum­mate egg­plant­based dish, the kashk e

badem­jan. Slicked with glis­ten­ing oil, this gar­licky, smooth but nutty spread is stud­ded with tiny ground wal­nuts and mixed with dried yo­gurt and a sprig of fried mint — after one spoon­ful, I im­me­di­ately wanted to dol­lop it onto ev­ery­thing else in sight.

Other items on the ta­ble could have ben­e­fited from the dol­lop­ing, too, as they proved less ex­cit­ing — and, per­haps not co­in­ci­den­tally, less tra­di­tional. The falafel dully melds beets and chick­peas into a cu­ri­ously mushy, floppy tex­ture that’s in­con­sis­tent with ex­pec­ta­tions of well-formed, semi-crisp and bean-rich orbs. (On another oc­ca­sion, the house spe­cial of a spicy car­rot-chick­pea falafel proved tastier and more struc­turally sound.) Vine­gary dol­mas (grape leaves), usu­ally stuffed with beef and rice, also get a lighter treat­ment at Mi­lad, with yel­low split peas, turmeric rice, and golden raisins, but they too make a muted im­pres­sion.

The main event on the small menu might seem to be the kabobs, of which there are five — beef ten­der­loin, ground beef, chicken, lamb, and

veg­gie. They’re served with more rice, a whole blis­tered roma tomato, and a crisp-cool Shi­razi salad (diced cu­cum­ber, tomato, red onion, lemon, and mint). On my six­teenth birth­day, my friend Vanosheh, whose par­ents had em­i­grated from Tehran to South­ern Cal­i­for­nia decades be­fore, sur­prised me with a back­yard feast fea­tur­ing kabob koobideh, a rather hum­ble-look­ing ob­long skewer of ground beef, gar­lic, su­mac, and onion that nonethe­less proved richly sat­is­fy­ing. Here, it’s a bland mouth­ful, as is the dry chicken skewer, which seemed to have es­caped its ad­ver­tised saf­fron-lemon mari­nade. The lamb kabob is the clear win­ner here, with its pli­ant, nicely roasted meat in a light mint sauce. But after sam­pling the suc­cess of another small plate — sticky-sweet Med­jool dates filled with melted feta cheese and driz­zled with honey — I’d go back to Mi­lad and stick to try­ing more ap­pe­tiz­ers, like the kuku-ye sabzi (herb frit­tata with wal­nuts and bar­ber­ries) or the fe­s­en­jun flat­bread with but­ter­nut squash, pome­gran­ate, caramelized onions, and feta.

For dessert, a cou­ple of scoops of rose­wa­ter and saf­fron La Lecheria ice cream are a wel­come am­brosia — a tonic you may need, de­pend­ing on which of the some­what spacy staff serves you. But a few hic­cups in hos­pi­tal­ity at a new restau­rant are a small price to pay for a dis­tinc­tive din­ing op­por­tu­nity. In the end, ac­cord­ing to the wise words of the mys­tic Rumi, “We pre­fer the in­side of a wal­nut, not the shell.”

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