Chow Bella

Best Thing I Ate All Week: Huge Polarizing Flavors of the Middle East

Ash-e reshteh and shirazi.
Ash-e reshteh and shirazi. Chris Malloy
Almost every morning, I eat a savory yogurt for breakfast. Into this yogurt I mix ingredients like pickled beets, sunflower seeds, roasted zucchini, and olive oil. These yogurts are inspired by labneh dishes from the Middle East. To get them going, I often make Caspian Market part of my weekend grocery run.

You might be familiar with The Persian Room, a restaurant attached to Caspian Market. Both supply the people of north Scottsdale with Middle Eastern specialties, or at least, the people who crave them.

The Persian Room is a restaurant that seems to inhabit its own universe. There are heavy, ornate curtains and massive marble-looking columns, and extravagant stairs to an upper level. Recorded piano music plays. Water gurgles in a fountain. Your server brings you basil, cilantro, and butter alongside complimentary flatbread.

You spread on the butter. You drape herbs, onion segments, and fold the warm bread. The flavors are rough and pungent and richly herbal. They wake up your palate like an alarm clock.

And what came next woke me up some more.

There was a shirazi salad, a cucumber and tomato dish from southern Iran. Kind of like tabbouli without the cracked wheat, the salad of chopped cucumber, tomato, and red onion – all zinging with different fresh or bright flavors – was amplified by use of citrus and parsley. And if that wasn't enough, there was a shaker packed with purple sumac particles on the table. If you wanted, you could dial up the freshness with this famously lemony spice even more.

There was a soup, a bowl of ash-e reshteh.

click to enlarge Oh to be Prince Caspian - CHRIS MALLOY
Oh to be Prince Caspian
Chris Malloy
Ash-e reshteh is an Iranian soup wired with spices and swimming with, oh, yes, noodles. Most people don't associate noodles with Middle Eastern cooking. Most people think of China or Italy or Japan or maybe even Ethiopia, which Italy colonized. But flour and water takes many shapes in many places.

A scant tangle of yellow noodles hid in the soup. Under the fried onions and melting chickpeas. Somewhere in the chopped green of the soup's warm body. A spoonful of that green brought a blizzard of spices. There was parsley and chives and spinach. There may have been mint and dill. The richness seemed to intensify under the spell of heavily fried onions. Once unearthed, the noodles were soft and yielding.

As the piano played and the fountain gurgled, I went from heavy to light, light to heavy, heavy to light, and back and forth again. And though the fancy setting isn't typically my thing, tornadoes of herbs and noodles sure are, and the sheer brightness of the shirazi made me smile.

The Persian Room. 17040 North Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale; 480-614-1414.
Sunday through Friday 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy