heart & soul food
MILAD PERSIAN BISTRO
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.”