Garden Notoriety

All dishes at Persian Garden Cafe, including pita, are homemade.
Erik Guzowski

Chef Mahmmud Jaafari has got a gem on his hands with Green Leaf Cafe, a casual little shop on 19th Avenue and Campbell in Phoenix. The place has been around for more than a decade, serving an ambitious menu of Persian cuisine accented by Mediterranean, Italian, American, Mexican, Cajun, vegetarian and even a smattering of Oriental influences. It's always been popular with Middle Eastern immigrants, health food nuts and adventurous eaters.

Yet it's only recently that the restaurant -- known as Main Street Cafe until a few years ago -- became mainstream, drawing in crowds of diners from broader walks of life. Perhaps the Valley is growing up; whatever the motivation, it's refreshing to see more people willing to give the nondescript, strip-mall storefront a chance. For this they've been amply rewarded with some of the most fantastic, healthy, budget-priced food in the Valley.

Now Jaafari is spreading the wealth, opening Persian Garden Cafe on Thomas across from Phoenix College. This is an upscale sister to Green Leaf, offering virtually the same menu but in a more luxurious setting. Such an approach is overdue: it's high time the Phoenix area had a restaurant that concentrates on vegetarian, vegan, macrobiotic and authentic Middle Eastern flavors yet is housed in more than a hippie hole-in-the-wall.

Whatever Jaafari spent on his new decor, the cost hasn't been passed on to the customers. Prices at Persian Garden are equal to those at Green Leaf Cafe, with lunch entrees coming in at $8 to $12, and dinner maxing out at $18 for a massive stir-fry feast of chicken, shrimp, snow peas, mushrooms, carrots, celery, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, turnips, cabbage, bean sprouts, onion and ginger root over brown rice. Best of all, the food hasn't been dumbed down to appeal to a clientele more comfortable with fancier tablecloth service. Flavors are knock-your-socks off stunning, vibrant with the herbs, spices, fruits and nuts that are the hallmark of Persian food.

Situated next to a yoga center and sharing a parking lot with the Original Hamburger Works, Persian Garden is a symphony in tapestry, the walls hung with plush Persian carpets, the tables draped with intricate Middle Eastern fabrics under glass. It's not often that chairs take center stage, but they do here, in gleaming carved wood cushioned with more of that rich, elaborate fabric. A communal booth is another relaxing option, backed in blond wood under contemporary-looking dropped ceiling pieces fashioned of wood. The place is quietly classy, accented with expensively framed portraits of Middle Eastern people and landscapes, brick floors and a modern, rounded wall of blue-and-maroon tile spliced with backlit glass block. Traffic whizzing by on Thomas is a distant memory, shrouded by sheer white curtains on the expansive glass-windowed storefront and soothed by Middle Eastern music and a splashing fountain.

The restrained setting serves as a tranquil backdrop to food prepared with wild but skilled abandon. Jaafari knows his seasonings, and isn't afraid to use them, sometimes to shocking effect. The herbs and spices are everywhere. They come in fresh and dried form; as centerpieces, accents and garnishes; in a dazzling array of oregano, basil, mint, dill, fennel, cumin, garlic, capers, parsley, ginger, fenugreek (a pleasantly bitter, slightly sweet herb), cilantro and more. These leaves, stems and seeds bring jolts of aroma and taste to simple vegetables, chicken, shrimp, lamb, tofu and pasta.

An appetizer of pourani is much more than just parboiled spinach blended with yogurt; it's a luxurious dip deeply perfumed with garlic, onion and olive oil, spooned with homemade whole-wheat pita bread triangles. Baba ghanouj elevates eggplant, the fruit rendered creamy and spanked with garlic, black pepper, tahini (sesame seed paste), chives and parsley. Like hummus, it's dipped with pita and vegetable sticks. And though I prefer a thicker hummus than the soupy model served here, there's no denying the rush that comes from good garbanzo beans blended with quantities of lemon juice, soy sauce, black pepper, tahini and parsley.

Jaafari's "cugurt" is a milder lead-in, a velvety blend of homemade yogurt, chopped cucumber, mint, dill, onion and sea salt that's equally bitter and sweet. A merza faranghee starter is perfectly prepared, the plate strewn with three bundles of grilled tomato, feta and onion wrapped with soft strips of grilled eggplant alongside cugurt, pita and rice.

Jaafari is a stickler for from-scratch cooking, crafting every detail down to the stock for the homemade vegetarian soups. Lentil, black bean and an oil-free minestrone dusted with Parmesan are highly-prized choices, but miso is my top pick. The soup is ugly to look at but entirely edible, its mud-colored broth lurking with a nice, woody-toned undercurrent of soy sauce and ginseng. This miso is more filling than traditional Japanese soup, stocked with dice-sized chunks of tofu, scallion, carrot, seaweed and onion.

The kitchen creates its own salad dressing, with results so good it ought to be sold retail. No wimpy vinegar and oil here; rather a wonder of olive oil, apple cider vinegar, lemon juice, dried herbs and Persian spices. The concoction glistens on shirazi, each bite of chopped tomato, cucumber and red onion releasing a different note. One bite is lemon, another is distinctly mint, yet another is sharp vinegar.

Another salad of angel hair feta is equally complex, layering cold, slippery noodles and romaine tossed with feta, Parmesan, scallions, tomatoes and a wonderfully effective avocado paste. Like most of Persian Garden's dishes, this pasta isn't for the weak-spirited -- there's so much garlic that the fragrance floats around our table like a cloud. It's beautiful.

Persian Garden's food isn't for diners hung up on fancy presentation, either. Many plates look like dreaded health food, piled in untidy platters of browns, grays and yellows sparked with bits of green. The spud burger is homely, a lumbering potato cake over brown rice, ladled with cugurt. But the beauty's in eating the crispy-edged burger mixed with mushrooms, carrots, celery, onions, garlic and soy sauce. Brown rice is blended with lentils, raisins and onion, while a side of house feta salad bursts with fresh herbs like basil, mint, chives and dill. A spinach burger isn't any prettier, but it's just as pleasing, brimming with parsley, wheat flour, fenugreek, walnuts, chives and dill. It rests under a mound of sautéed onions, garlic, tomato, feta and cugurt.

Stews, served at dinner only, may resemble swamps, but are purely delicious. Khoresh-egonmehsabsi means spinach stew, and it's as complicated as its name. The artful dish combines the green leaves with kidney beans, tomatoes, walnuts, tomato juice, lemon and a gardenful of herbs. Khoresh-egeymeh badernajan sounds like a mouthful and it is, delivering a provocative mélange of eggplant simmered with yellow split peas, mushrooms, carrot, bell pepper, celery, onion and herbs served with brown rice, cugurt and pita triangles.

There's no beef on the menu at Persian Garden, and with most dishes, chicken or shrimp are add-ons. But meat eaters do well with gyros, acceptable if somewhat mushy strips of grilled lamb tucked in white pita with romaine, feta, tomato, onion, Kalamata olives and pickles. Jaafari gets playful with a Southwestern version in his Mexigyros, adding bell pepper, jalapeños, mushrooms, with a side of brown rice and toasted saffron raisins.

Spicy chicken is another captivating choice, dressing a grilled breast with a cacophony of vegetables (mushrooms, bell peppers, onions, scallions, ginger root, celery, garlic and tomatoes), hot Persian spices and soy sauce. The bird nests on brown rice rich with almonds, saffron and raisins under a cloak of melted feta. And salmon finds flair in the fish, broiling a quality slab in an earthstone oven and partnering it with grilled eggplant-wrapped asparagus topped with dill cream, plus saffron rice.

Persian Garden does have a selection of less aggressively seasoned dishes, including classic dolmeh, tidy rolls of steamed grape leaves stuffed with tabbouleh -- an intricately diced salad of bulgur wheat, cucumber, tomato, pine nuts and parsley, moistened with lemon juice and olive oil. Falafel is mild, the croquettes of mashed chickpea fried to a gentle crunch. And stir-fry plates are refreshingly uncluttered, with no typical heavy Chinese-style saucing, but clean broths of soy and lemon juice. A portabella model sparkles in its simplicity, the mushroom paired with silky tofu, spinach, tomatoes, feta, garlic and ginger root.

Lunchtime also offers lower-keyed offerings, with a long list of pita and whole-wheat bread sandwiches, plus salads. Here's a moist marvel: provopita, a pizza-like creation of chunk turkey breast, tomato, fresh sliced mushrooms, gooey provolone, crisp bell peppers and onion on a grilled pita. The albacore tuna salad comes spiked with a boisterous chop of watercress, water chestnut, celery and dill, studded with capers, then moistened by mayonnaise and yogurt.

Jaafari's desserts crush the theory that health food has to taste, well, healthy. Vegan pumpkin pie tastes like the original, even without dairy or eggs in the recipe, made all the more interesting with an inventive tofu topping featuring soy sauce, honey and cardamom (a pungent ginger). Vegan cheesecake is too damp and crumbly to be mistaken for the real thing, but it's still luscious, drizzled in blackberry puree. The treats are a gentle finish to a high-spirited supper, sipped with Persian chai, a hot tea made with rose water, rose petals and cardamom.

Green Leaf Cafe is a jewel that sparkles on its own. Partnered with Persian Garden Cafe, it turns the central West Valley into a treasure chest of wonderful, destination-worthy dining.

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Persian Garden Cafe

1335 W. Thomas Rd.
Phoenix, AZ 85013


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