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Dining review

Consistency works for Towson's Orchard Market and Cafe

For The Baltimore Sun

The menu at the Orchard Market & Cafe in Towson hasn't changed much since 1997, and I don't want it to.

That's the year that Nahid Vaezpour and her daughter and son-in-law, Sharareh and Jason Bulkeley, took over the restaurant.

"We keep whatever people have requested from the menu," said Sharareh Bulkeley. "Everyone has a favorite."

The dining room in shades of mellow olive and mustard has also survived the test of time. It's old-fashioned but endearing, like a favorite elderly aunt.

Columns, photos and tapestries create a Middle Eastern atmosphere to complement the Persian dishes made from family recipes; Vaezpour used to do all the cooking at the restaurant before she retired last year.

Now Bulkeley, her sister, Hideh Kamoei, and sous chef Pedro Diaz prepare items such as barg — skewered beef tenderloin with tomatoes and onions — and chicken fesenjune , an Iranian favorite, with poached chicken in a walnut-pomegranate sauce.

The restaurant, which opened in 1988, sold various food products in its early days — hence, the market part of the restaurant's name. That was discontinued years ago to focus on dining.

The restaurant is BYOB with no corkage fee. A server sets the table with wine glasses if you've brought a bottle and hands you a corkscrew.

On Wednesdays, there is live music with no cover charge. (There are exceptions for special events.) We had the pleasure of listening to a harpsichordist while making our way through a mostly delicious meal.

The biggest derailment of the evening was the Persian-style paella, a regular special, our waiter said. It sounded promising, with shrimp, scallops, mussels, clams, fish, calamari, chicken and vegetables in a garlic curry sauce tossed with basmati rice.

But something about the taste of the dish, in addition to the overcooked seafood, was off-putting. We ordered a serving for two without checking on the cost. The portion is huge, but so is the price at $38.95.

We had a better experience with the rest of our dishes, starting with several aromatic appetizers, including the mushroom zaban.

The slices of curried poached beef tongue, sauteed with onions and portobello mushrooms, were as tender and delectable as homey meatballs. We lapped up the sauce with warm pita triangles.

We also liked the gooey Bulgarian feta dotting a sauteed stew of tomatoes, onions and black olives, and another dish, haleem bademjune, which was similar to baba ghanoush. The garlicky eggplant and bean spread was enhanced with sour cream and walnuts.

After tasting the aash-o-reshteh soup, we anointed the agreeable broth — thick with lentils, kidney beans, chickpeas and vermicelli noodles — our new go-to comfort food.

In a kitchen mix-up, we ended up with a mango pear salad, and after one look at the beautiful dish, we were happy to hang on to it. The mixed greens glistened with a delicate pomegranate vinaigrette and were topped with ripe mangoes and pears juxtaposed with a zippy block of white Bulgarian feta cheese.

Besides the paella, we ordered two other entrees, which were excellent. The spicy kermani beef showcased sauteed slices of filet mignon, mushrooms, other vegetables and peperoncini in a tomato-garlic curry sauce.

I have been a fan of the shirin polo — "sunshine on a plate," our server said — for years. The dish always satisfies me with the juicy chicken pieces swabbed with a sweet orange-mango sauce and nestled next to saffron rice adorned with carrots, orange peel, currants and raisins.

We ended with desserts that are made in-house, including a Napoleon with stellar saffron ice cream and another treat, a lush sponge cake with a creamy filling and fruit. We also enjoyed a crispy kataifi, a pastry that looks like it's been rolled in shredded wheat.

Over the years, the Orchard Market & Cafe has played a lead role in introducing the community to the exotic ingredients of Persian cooking. It's always a pleasure to reacquaint myself with its consistent charms.

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The Orchard Market & Cafe

Rating: 3 stars

Where: 8815 Orchard Tree Lane, Towson

Contact: 410-339-7700, orchardmarketandcafe.com

Open: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; lunch and buffet ($15.95 a person), 11:45 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday; dinner, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday (Note: The kitchen stops taking orders 15 minutes before closing)

Prices: Appetizers, $4.95-$9.95; entrees, $14.95-$18.95; paella, $29.95 for one or $38.95 for two

Food: Persian

Noise/TVs: None

Service: Our server, who turned out to be co-owner Jason Bulkeley, was charming and patient about describing the dishes

Parking: Parking lot

Special diets: Can accommodate

Reservation policy: Accepts reservations

[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star.]

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