Restaurant Review - Poems of Love and Sorrow
Persian fine dining in Sandy SpringsWednesday April 12, 2006 12:04 am EDT
A basket of warm flatbread is placed before us, along with a plate of walnuts, mild cheese, tarragon and mint. The room is comfortable and modern, with colorful Persian accents. Wine is on its way. All around us, and in front of us on the table, comfort is mixed with a hint of the exotic.
And then, all hell breaks loose.
Our waitress drops two plates on our table. "What is that?" I ask, not recognizing one of the dishes.
"It's the kashk badenjoon," she replies.
"We didn't order that."
"Oh," she says, and looks helplessly at me.
"We ordered the badenjoon stew for an entree, and the dolmeh for an appetizer."
"Oh. Well, we are out of the dolmeh." She is concerned and looks apologetic, but isn't offering any solutions. Behind her, another waitress pushes up to the table holding a bottle of wine.
"We don't have the wine you ordered, but we have this one. Do you want it?"
"This is the only wine we have like the one you ordered," she says emphatically, meaning it is the same grape, but from another hemisphere altogether.
"Could you give us a minute to figure out what's going on with our food, and then we'll choose another wine?" I ask. She storms off.
I turn back to the first waitress. "OK, why don't you leave this here and we'll pick a different entree." She nods thankfully.
I take a bite of the kashk badenjoon, a warm, blended eggplant and onion appetizer. The sweet yet earthy depth of the dish is astonishing. It almost makes me swoon.
So begins my love-hate affair with Rumi's Kitchen, a new Persian restaurant on Roswell Road in Sandy Springs. At almost every turn, the place, named for the Sufi poet, is both fantastic and infuriating. The fantastic part comes in the form of food, and the infuriating part in the form of sweet, well-meaning but inept service. In many restaurants, bumbling service is forgivable, but Rumi's has fine dining aspirations. Parking is valet only. Servers dress sleekly in all black. It's not a stretch to drop $80 for two people at dinner.
In many ways, the money is well worth it. Order the rack of lamb and it will come out crunchy and blackened, with delicious charred fat and meat to chew on. American foodies have come to expect lamb served medium rare, but much of the world eats lamb the way it's served here, closer to medium-well. The extra cooking time brings out the almost gamey quality that lamb possesses, a delicious combination with grilled peppers, tomatoes and basmati rice.
The charred meat fest continues with Rumi's many kabobs. Beef options are all incredibly flavorful and satisfying. The Cornish hen joojeh kabob and the chicken kabob are both marinated in lemon and saffron, which brighten the smoky meats.
I strongly recommend ordering some of the items listed as "starters" to go with your charbroiled entrees. Mast mousir, a garlic and yogurt dip, serves as a wonderful condiment to these dishes. Shirazi salad, a medley of chopped cucumbers, tomatoes and parsley with a citrus dressing, offers a lovely fresh counterpart to the meat as well.
The stews don't impress me quite as much. The badenjoon entree, an eggplant, tomato and "veal" stew (which appeared to be beef to me), and the lamb shank are both tasty but lack the musky harmony and depth that Persian stews often possess.
While some dishes don't wow as much as others, they still satisfy. It's a good thing, because a meal at Rumi's Kitchen can be overshadowed by service problems.
The issues continue later in the evening, as well as on other visits. Our check is dropped on the table before we've had a chance to order dessert. When we ask if dessert is a possibility, our waitress flashes a killer smile, nods emphatically, and says, "Yes, but the crème brûlée is by far the best."
She's almost pleading with us to just order it and shut up. There is no dessert menu. We finally extract the information that they also offer baklava, however. We order it and enjoy it. But then we sit for 20 minutes before we're able to get the check back.
The issue isn't that the servers are unwilling to try their best. The issue is with training. I'm always saddened when I see a great restaurant falter because it's failed to put as much effort and attention into the front end as it has into the cooking. I never saw anyone on the floor who looked to be in charge. The chef, Ali Mesghali, was in the dining room frequently, making the rounds and schmoozing. But the servers seemed intimidated rather than looking to him for direction.
At lunch one day, we ask our waiter if the dolmeh is available. He smiles and says he'll ask, but looks as if finding out won't be as simple as it might seem. Alas, still no dolmeh, which is a shame, because the description of beef and rice wrapped in grape leaves and simmered in a sweet and sour pomegranate sauce sounds intriguing. But the dining room is quiet today, our server is nervous but determined to do well, and the food is good. Plus, at $20 for two people, lunch is a real bargain.
I hope Rumi's Kitchen finds a way to make such a pleasurable meal with no major mishaps the rule rather than the exception. The food there deserves the chance to shine without distraction.