“Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse — and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness —
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.”
– The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
The imagery inspired by this enduring poem–most notably “a jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou”–can be read on so many levels–some literal and some allegorical. In the literal sense, these few lines may evoke images of a romantic dalliance in an idyllic wilderness, its lines undoubtedly kindling intense ardor. In the allegorical sense, some scholars believe one of the core themes of The Rubaiyat is a reiteration of a passage from The Gospel of Luke: “eat, drink and be merry.”
Focusing solely on the literal translation, perhaps the modern day urban equivalent of a romantic outdoors tryst is a meal at Pars Cuisine which specializes in the Persian food Khayyam enjoyed during his time. At Pars (synonymous with Persian), that cuisine is served in a milieu which may inspire a little romance in its own right.
When Pars opened its doors in 1984, it wasn’t exactly a restaurant which inspired romantic date night moments. Ensconced in a tiny Montgomery Plaza storefront with a seating capacity of only 13 tables, few visitors lingered at the diminutive diner to look lovingly into their date’s eyes after a movie at the now defunct Montgomery Plaza Theater. Most of their affection was directed toward the inspired Persian, Greek and Turkish cuisine.
When they first launched Pars Cuisine a quarter of a century ago, owners Mohammad and Shahnaz Tafti operated under a unique business model. Mohammad worked as a teacher while Shahnaz worked for the city. He ran the restaurant at night while she ran it in the daytime. Their cuisine was too good and their drive to succeed too focused to be contained in a small setting.
In 2001, the Taftis moved to their current location adjacent to the Interstate (I-25). Now situated at 4320 The 25 Way, N.E., a sprawling office and retail complex exemplifying urban infill at its best, Pars Cuisine was transformed from a great place to grab a gyros to an upscale, fine-dining restaurant everyone in the city wanted to experience. When Pars launched at its new location, it was the toughest ticket in town (with all due respect to Lobo basketball).
After five years, Pars Cuisine expanded again. A two-year, $150,000 expansion nearly doubled seating capacity to 120 guests and more importantly, made each meal experience even more memorable. The luxurious offerings now include a banquet room available with a capacity of up to 50 for private or corporate parties. The private banquet room includes full bar, music, decor and some of the best service in town.
The expansion also meant the inclusion on the menu of special green, white and black teas prepared at a Samovar bar (Samovar refers to the artful heating unit used to heat the tea). The Samovar bar menu lists large premium tea leaves, espresso, specialty drinks, international and domestic beer and wine. You can partake of those teas out in the patio or in one of two private tea rooms.
The restaurant’s epicenter is one of the most opulent and classy settings in town, where families and couples sit together on a cushioned floor under a billowing silk tent and listen to the bubbling fountain while they partake of exquisite cuisine. Chair-backs on each cushion provide comfort and support. This beautiful backdrop is visible from other more conventional seating areas.
If you’re looking for something even more exotic, you can move out to the hookah bar on the outdoor patio where you can choose from an assortment of shishas, tobaccos combined with fruit and molasses or honey. Flavors include mint, jasmine, mango and the restaurant’s best-seller, a mixture of red and green apples.
Exotic entertainment is available on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 6:30PM through closing when belly dancers perform. While some prudish Americans hold belly dancers in the same esteem as ecdysiasts writhing around a pole, others find it strangely mesmerizing–although most men will admit the challenge of keeping their eyes focused solely on the dancer’s undulating movements which are both sensual and artistic.
The lunch menu is offered Monday through Saturday from 11AM to 3PM, but dinner entrees can also be served at any time upon request. Both the lunch and dinner menu are ambitious, a wondrous compendium of Middle Eastern delicacies prepared as wonderfully as you’ll find them anywhere in the city.
Many couples start with the Mini Mazeh, a combination plate for two, a treasure trove of six sumptuous appetizers: dolmas, hummus, feta cheese and Kalamata olives, falafel, mast o’khiyar and kashk o’bademjoon served with pita bread. The dolmas are the sole appetizer not made on the premises, a fairly common practice in Mediterranean restaurants who don’t always have the time and inclination to perform the arduous, labor-intensive task. The falafel is among the very best in the city, two moist oblong seasoned chickpea fritters that are antithetical to most you’ll find in Albuquerque in that they’re actually excellent.
The Mast o’Khiyar, a traditional Iranian side dish made with mint, cucumber and yogurt is served cool and is very much reminiscent of Greek tzatziki. The Kashk o’bademjoon, a puree of toasted eggplant with sauteed onions, garlic, mint and kashk (Persian cream) is rich and delicious. The hummus is simply sublime, a perfect puree of garbanzo beans, garlic, sesame butter, lemon juice and olive oil. This combination plate is one of the Duke City’s very best ways to start a meal.
Combinations seem to work very well at Pars where an entree platter for one or two people is one of the restaurant’s most popular offerings. The Soltani is a marriage of barg (skewered filet mignon or chicken breast) and kabob koobideh (skewered seasoned organic beef) broiled under an open fire. Served with grilled tomato and the best saffron-tinged basmati rice in the city, it is plated artistically and covers a large platter.
The filet mignon is perfectly seasoned, moist and tender. Make that fork-tender. So is the kabob which is also juicy and spiced very well with Mediterranean spices that don’t impart the piquancy New Mexicans tend to associate with spiciness. If it’s not already on your table, ask for sumac, a purplish maroon spice with an interesting tart-savory flavor akin to a mix of paprika and lemon. Lavish it on the filet mignon and the kabob and thank me later.
I’m thankful for the encyclopedic knowledge of a veteran waiter who pointed me toward the Fesenjoon, a stew made with sauteed walnuts in pomegranate sauce served with chicken and basmati rice. Though the combination of pomegranates and walnuts is unusual in American dishes, it is a popular Persian combination. The Fesenjoon, which is simultaneously delicate and rich, is often used as a meat condiment or dip. As a stew entree, it is also unbeatable.
The chicken is three cut-up boneless breasts (or at least portions thereof) topped with a thick “gravy” of pomegranates and walnuts. That gravy has a slightly tangy, but absolutely rich and delicious flavor. It’s unlike any other stew in the Duke City with the characteristic heart and soul-warming qualities that make stew an endearing comfort food favorite. It’s so good, you might have to force yourself to order something else.
The basmati rice at most restaurants doesn’t usually warrant mention, but Pars basmati is in a class by itself. It is lightly coated with oil or more likely butter which prevented the rice from clumping. Every long grain of rice can be picked up by itself without bothering its neighbor grain. It’s wholly unlike the dry, boring rice other restaurants serve.
Desserts also have a personality all their own. With few exceptions, they’re made in-house by Shahnaz, the culinary heart of the restaurant. They’re also not made in the cloying, sugar-overdosed manner of many American desserts. Instead, desserts are sweetened by rosewater. Sometimes known as rose syrup, rosewater is a by-product of the production of rose oil which is used in perfume.
Rosewater has a very distinctive flavor and is heavily used in Persian cuisine, especially in desserts. The Pars menu includes traditional Persian ice cream which is housemade vanilla ice cream with pistachio, saffron and rosewater. As appetizing as it sounds, the savvy waitstaff will often offer a sample to children wanting to try it. It prevents trauma among children who haven’t been previously exposed to rosewater and its distinctive (but thoroughly delicious) differences.
Also among the dessert offerings are baklava–both the traditional Greek baklava and Persian baklava which is made with rosewater, but not with phyllo dough. The Persian baklava is topped with ground pistachios and isn’t nearly as sweet as its honey-flavored Greek counterpart.
The key lime pie, also made in-house, is one of the best pies of any sort in New Mexico, a rich, tangy and thoroughly enjoyable treat. It is kept in a special refrigerator to prevent it from melting. That’s how rich it is.
Omar Khayyam may not have written any his lyrical magic specifically for Pars Cuisine, but the spirit of his words live on with every dining excursion to one of Albuquerque’s very best Mediterranean restaurants–make that one of the best restaurants of any genre.
4320 The Way, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 1 August 2009
# OF VISITS: 4
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Mini Mazeh Combination, Falafel, Fesenjoon, Soltani, Persian Paklava, Key Lime Pie