“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.” Others compare its outlook to Ecclesiastes: that life is vanity, our knowledge is limited, our time is brief, and the existence of another world uncertain.
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. 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 below a billowing silk tent and listen to the burbling 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.
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 which played to standing room only crowds back then).
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. An expansive patio comfortably accommodates those of us who like dining with our four-legged children. Be forewarned, however, that roadrunners can easily scale the ten-foot wall to drink from the patio fountain and (like our Dude) your furry family members might not like that.
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. 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, expressive, elegant entertainment is available on Fridays and Saturdays from 7:00PM 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, Greek and Mediterranean delicacies prepared as wonderfully as you’ll find them anywhere in the city. Whether you’re in the mood for familiar favorites or want to explore dishes you may not previously have heard of, much less sampled, you’ll find something to make you very happy.
9 June 2018: Many couples start with the Mazeh Plate, a bountiful combination plate for several hungry diners. It’s a treasure trove of nine sumptuous appetizers: dolmas, feta cheese, Kalmata olives, falafel, shirazi salad, tzatziki, Kashk o’ Bademjoon, hummus and 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, four moist oblong chickpea fritters seasoned very well.
The hummus is sprinkled liberally with sumac, the addictive spice with a tart flavor reminiscent of vinegar or lemon though not as overpowering. It’s one of four diverse “dips” on the large plate. The most exotic is the Kashk o’ Bademjoon, an eggplant dip made with caramelized onion and garlic. When you have this dip, all you need is pita and the Mazeh plate is practically encircled by it. While the Kashk o’ Bademjoon is exotic, the Shirazi salad is delicious simplicity alike, a healthy salad made with cucumber, tomatoes, onions mint and lemon juice. Fresh and lively, the tzatziki is among the very best we’ve had.
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 the sumac shaker. Lavish it on the filet Mignon and the kabob and thank me later.
In 2009, a veteran waiter with an encyclopedic knowledge of the menu 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 in latter visits.
9 June 2018: Alas, it took nine years for us to return to Pars where it was my goal to confirm that the fesenjoon was as good as my initial impressions believed it was. Rather than focus solely on my desired dish, the Persian soups and stews section of the menu practically leapt at me with an offering called the Mazeh Stew Combination, essentially a three stew sampler featuring not only a vegetarian version of the Fesenjoon which had enthralled me, but Ghormeh Sabzi and Ghimeh served with saffron-enriched rice. First things first–the Fesenjoon is unbelievably good, a very unique and delicious stew. It’s not for everybody, but adventurous diners will at least enjoy trying it.
Ghormeh Sabzi, which translates to “stewed greens,” is Iran’s most popular stew, usually made with parsley, spinach, leeks, coriander, kidney beans, dried lemons and either turmeric-seasoned lamb or beef. It’s somewhat reminiscent flavor-wise of Indian saag paneer minus the farmer’s cheese, of course. It’s a very good stew. Ghimeh, a stew made from sautéed beef and split peas in a tomato broth topped with shoestring fries is where food meets fun meets flavor. The shoestring fries are a delightful touch to one of the best, most interesting split pea soups you’ll have in this town.
9 June 2018: For my Kim, sometimes only a gyro (always double meat) will do, never mind all the exotic offerings on the menu. Available with your choice of chicken or the beef and lamb amalgam typically found on gyros, the double-meat gyros are served with a large Greek salad, several wedges of pita (if you don’t want your gyros “sandwich-style”), and ramekins of tzatziki and Greek dressing. The Greek salad (or at least the large lettuce leafs) dominates the plate though there’s never enough feta cheese or Kalamata olives to suit us. Don’t spare the Greek dressing; it’s the best we’ve had with sweet, tangy and savory notes melding together beautifully. Both the chicken and the beef-lamb are fresh and delicious with a lightly seasoned profile.
9 June 2018: Because a Greek salad George Costanza would describe as “a really big salad” isn’t enough for my Kim, she had to order Pars’ tabouli chopped parsley, tomatoes, onions, cracked wheat (bulgar), lemon and olive oil, served with pita bread), one of the most popular salads across the Mediterranean. Actor Richard Dreyfuss was once quoted saying “tabouli is the best salad, but still you don’t win friends with salad.” He never had the tabouli at Pars. It’s the type of salad sure to appease old friends and win new ones.
Desserts also have a personality all their own. With few exceptions, they’re made in-house. 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. The savvy waitstaff will often offer a sample to children wanting to try it.
9 June 2018: 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. Order it as part of the Persian Dessert plate and in addition to the Persian baklava, you’ll enjoy sohan asali (honey, saffron and almond “caramels”), bamieh (Persian “doughnuts” flavored with rose water and saffron) and a terrific brittle. It’s a great way to introduce your taste buds to some of the most unique and tasty desserts in town.
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
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LATEST VISIT: 9 June 2018
# OF VISITS: 5
COST: $$$ – $$$$
BEST BET: Mini Mazeh Combination, Falafel, Fesenjoon, Soltani, Persian Paklava, Key Lime Pie, Persian Dessert Plate, Sohan (Pistachio Brittle), Tabouli, Double Meat Gyros, Greek Salad, Mazeh Combination Stew