Thursday, August 15, 2002

Journey to Persia

Posted on Thu, Aug 15, 2002 at 4:00 AM

Release Date: 2002-08-15

If skewered meats and shimmying midriffs are your idea of a Persian (or Greek or Turkish ... ) dining experience, then you've come to the right place.

And to the wrong one. For though the Friday night belly dancer could bounce with the best of them, and the shish-kabobs of tender beef left little to be desired, to stop there would be to miss the point of Sina, a stylish place with much more on its plate than baubles, bangles, and browned bits of beef.

Sina replaces a previous Persian restaurant in the same location, one that had a Middle Eastern grocery store attached. Our attentive and sartorially spiffy waiter claimed there was no connection between the two, and we'll have to believe him, but the menu is inevitably similar, and the meal did start out in the same, traditional way with a refreshing, palate-perking plate of parsley, scallions, radishes, feta, and flatbread.

We skipped some of the expected appetizers such as the dolmeh, or rice-stuffed grape leaves, and tabouli in favor of an assortment of exotics. The kotolet sabzi, a kind of frittata with egg, green onion, cilantro, and parsley, was the only disappointment; it may be utterly correct in classical terms, but to us it merely tasted green. (It's not easy being green, alas.) However, the tah dig, a plate of the best crispy rice bits topped with both the ghormeh sabzi (a stew of kidney beans, dried limes, green herbs, and incidental beef) and khoresh gheimeh (a stew of yellow split peas with beef and tomato sauce) were more than good enough to compensate. The toppings, each of which can be had as an entrée, were respectively lusty and tart and quite unlike anything in Western cuisine. Although it seemed the least traditional (perhaps due to the lack of an exotic name), the quail, marinated in olive oil and saffron, grilled, and served over sautéed spinach with a touch of vinegar, brought the house down. Don't miss it.

The entrée orgy began with fessenjan, a dish that a Persian friend once called "Persian mole." It lacks the dried chile component, but otherwise this complex blend of walnuts and pomegranate could easily stand up to the pride of Puebla. As served at Sina, the chicken is bathed in a sauce at once tart and sweet that seems to depend upon pomegranate molasses for much of its intensity. The excellent, basmati rice served with it, a hallmark of Persian cuisine, is perfect as a foil.

Eggplant is a typical Middle-Eastern vegetable and it figures prominently in gheimeh badenjan with beef shank, yellow split peas, and tomato sauce — but you already knew that, of course. The eggplant lends the dish an almost bitter quality (which is why it's often sliced and salted to draw out its more aggressive fluids), but the mound of shoestring potatoes atop the serving provides for another masterful play of opposites. Lamb shank probably has another one of those Persian names designed to shame the lexicographically limited, but it's not used here. Sina does surround the forthrightly lamby meat with an especially intriguing rice, however. It's flecked with dill and other bits of green and, once again, complements the dish handsomely — as did our bottle of subtly herbal Ferrari Carrano 2000 Fumé Blanc, nicely priced at $21. Cornish hen, a grown-up version of the quail, is another menu option, as is a selection of grilled entrées such as trout, salmon, and sirloin for those wary of unknown names. A shake of sour-tasting sumac from the container on the table might be a good way to steer a simple sirloin into uncharted territory without too much trauma.

Expected desserts of the multi-layered and honey-drenched ilk are available at Sina, and we availed ourselves of the baklava — not made in-house, but then it rarely is. Good enough, not transcendent. The frozen noodles, however, will pique the curiosity of even the most jaded diner. The entire Silk Road seems present in this dish, fragrant with rose water, tart with lime juice (use lots), silky with short noodles and crunchy with ice. A startlingly saturated saffron ice cream may also be available if you ask. Marco Polo points awarded if you order it.

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