Cafe Reviews

Gheimeh Shelter

Scottsdale's Thaifoon restaurant prides itself on what it is: a glamorous, trendy eatery with pleasant Thai-style food. Thaifoon also celebrates what it isn't: an authentic Thai experience. Rather than intimidating clientele with lots of fierce chiles, exotic galangal, lemongrass, lime leaf, hot chile, and nam pla (fish sauce), Thaifoon concentrates on mild-mannered meat, seafood and noodle dishes. Valley diners love it.

The same strategy has made P.F. Chang's a national success, serving Chinese food that's more pretty than pure, more chic than classic. There's proof that there are plenty of diners out there who, while wanting to experience a bit of international adventure, don't necessarily want to find fish lips or chicken feet on their plates.

These are the people who will line up at north Scottsdale's latest entree into the world of faux-ethnic dining, Persian Room. Persian Room is gorgeous. Its ingredients are upper-class (filet mignon, Cornish game hen, mahi-mahi). Dishes are familiar, focusing on kebabs with just a few daring offerings like gheimeh (stew) or adas polo (basmati rice tossed with raisins, lentils, dates and saffron). And its flavors are friendly, with little exhibition of the vibrant spices that make Persian food so dramatic, the oregano, basil, mint, dill, fennel, cumin, garlic, capers, parsley, ginger, fenugreek (a pleasantly bitter, slightly sweet herb), cilantro and such. I find it pretty boring, but the place is what it is, with no apologies necessary for people seeking a primer on Persian.

Persian Room's owner knows his market. Nasser Nikkhahmanesh has been in the restaurant business for almost three decades, including Shish Kebab House in Glendale, and his most recent venture, Wine & Kebab in Scottsdale. Wine & Kebab proved too small (the space is now home to Peter's Budapest Café), so in December Nikkhahmanesh relocated to expansive new digs at Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard and Scottsdale Road.

The designers are appealing to an upscale demographic here, with elaborate columns, deep-blue velvet drapes, massive glittering crystal chandeliers and a musical fountain. A grand staircase soars to the second-level lounge and bar, which is backed by an intricate stained-glass window. The tables are set for relaxation, flanked by graceful chairs finished in a golden-hued fabric. The service is highly professional, provided by staff outfitted in black-and-white bistro wear.

Meals start with a surprise -- a chunk of raw white onion to be torn and piled onto buttered pita bread. A better option is to save the pita for dunking in Persian Room's best dish, a stellar hummus that's a perfect model of nutty-toned mashed garbanzo beans melded with tahini (sesame-seed paste), olive oil, garlic and lemon. The portion is huge; one pita won't do it justice. Another excellent version finds the hummus blended with eggplant, the dip pleasingly creamy and thick.

A starter of mast o khiar is less satisfying, because the homemade yogurt is too thin and soupy, providing a one-dimensional base for chopped cucumber and not enough mint. The meek liquid needs the flavor boost it gets from spinach in the borani, or garlic in the mast o moosier dips. Or, partner the yogurt with torshi, a dynamic chop of pickles, carrots, cauliflower, eggplant and herbs marinated in a gutsy wine vinegar. Torshi brings edible excitement while yogurt tempers the tang.

There are plenty of better dolmeh in town, but these stuffed grape leaves are serviceable. The filling of rice rolled with chopped onion, dill, olive oil and mint is fine enough, but the leaves are somewhat slimy.

Ordering appetizers of dolmeh and Greek salad is redundant, given that the grape bundles rest on an almost exact approximation of the salad's romaine, roma tomato, highly salty feta cheese, kalamata olives, cucumbers, carrot and pepperoncini. The kitchen needs to ease up on the harsh white onions, too, which engage in a nasty battle with the gentler garden greens. The dressing could also use some added interest; it's more of that lifeless yogurt soup.

What Persian Room doesn't send out in theatrical spices, it compensates for with jaw-dropping portion size. Plates are enormous, offering more food than most diners could consume over two sittings.

A sultani platter groans under two fat rows of plump chicken fillet and a rope of koobideh kebab that's so long it curls back onto itself, all atop a mountain of basmati that must weigh at least a pound. Great value, but unfortunately there's too little flavor to make it really special. It's confusing -- the meal arrives blooming with a seductive aroma of spices, but virtually all nuance evaporates by the time it touches the tongue. Chicken tastes of chicken, koobideh is simply ground beef with minced onions, and basmati lacks the lush perfume of authentic recipes. Sides of juicy grilled tomato and pliable, warm pita bring some needed diversion.

Cornish kebab is a more interesting option, the 24-ounce bird bathed in a good, onion-tasting marinade, the moist meat skewered and broiled to a burnish. Lamb shish kebab is agreeable as well, the tender chunks broiled with bell peppers, onion and tomatoes. And zereshk polo with chicken enjoys extra impact from the tart barberries (similar to dried cranberries) and saffron tossed in the basmati.

I wish the chef would add some lamb to the gyros. Plain, spit-broiled beef is too bland, and not helped by a lackluster yogurt sauce. The hefty strips of meat are admirably juicy, though, and perk up under a spritz of lemon.

One dish needs instant attention from the chef. For all the mellowness on the menu, gheimeh bademjan launches a full-out assault on the taste buds. Surely this watery concoction is a mistake, a frightening swamp of a stew bloated with mushy, extraordinarily bitter eggplant, sweet onion, meager bits of beef and yellow split peas in a strong-as-battery-acid-based tomato sauce topped with fried potato sticks.

Showing better balance is fessenjan stew, simmering sautéed chicken tenders and walnuts in a floral, sweet-and-sour pomegranate sauce.

The desserts are fine, including homemade baklava and a worthy Persian ice cream, the vanilla infused with saffron, honey and pistachios.

Persian Room is too sleepy for diehard fans of this compelling cuisine. But for cautious diners looking to spark up their usual meat-and-potatoes evening out, it's interesting enough.

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Carey Sweet
Contact: Carey Sweet