Orchard Market and Cafe, 8815 Orchard Tree Lane, Towson, (410) 339-7700. AE, DC. Open Tuesdays to Sundays for lunch and dinner. No-smoking area: no. Wheelchair accessible: yes. Prices: appetizers, $2.95-$6.95; entrees, $8.95-$14.95.
The letter arrived a few months ago, just after I had reviewed another Persian restaurant. The writer was Michael Mir, owner of the Orchard Market and Cafe.
"I'd love for you to come here," it read in part, "so we (myself and my sous chef, who is an ex-wife and mother of 13!) can cook classic and nouvelle Persian food for you, the real way with home-style touches."
Who could resist such an invitation?
I did for a while, because the first and only time I had eaten at the Orchard Market and Cafe I had thought the food was good, but I wanted a little something more in the way of choice and atmosphere. That was several years ago. It really was a market -- a store that sold mostly Persian ingredients in a Towson strip shopping center. The cafe consisted of a few tables for those who were willing to eat among the canned goods, the deli counter, the bags of basmati rice and the refrigerator case of sodas.
The groceries, deli counter and sodas are all still there; but the place has been transformed into a lovely little full-service restaurant. Much has been done with little. The dining area is separated from the market by hanging carpets, a huge silk flower arrangement and plants. The soft pink wall along one side is lined with Persian art. Floral-print tablecloths reflect the fresh flowers on each table. A little fountain tinkles soothingly in the center of the room, and candlelight makes the dining area seem dressier than it really is.
Even more of a surprise was the menu, with all the choices of classic and, yes, nouvelle Persian cuisine one could possibly want. (I never quite figured out the difference, since most of the nouvelle dishes are described as "traditional" on the menu. And the one we tried was every bit as rich and delicious as the 'D classical ones, so nouvelle couldn't mean lighter.)
A special that evening was a "Fall Salad" in honor of the pomegranate harvest. (Pomegranates are an essential ingredient in Persian cuisine.) It was gorgeous with its crisp green romaine, shredded red cabbage, grated carrots, ruby tomatoes, slivers of XTC cucumber, walnuts, feta and bright pomegranate seeds. Hard to imagine that such a variety of ingredients would work together, but somehow they did. Bound together with a tart, faintly sweet pomegranate vinaigrette, the salad fairly sang with flavor.
The Orchard Market makes a classic Persian soup, aash, thashould not be missed. It's a heartwarming concoction of lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans and pasta in a thick, deeply flavorful liquid irresistibly seasoned with cilantro and parsley and other good things. At the center of this spectacular soup was a little spoonful of caramelized onions.
Or try the chef's version of haleem bademjune, a warm, smooth, addictively good dip made from lentils and sauteed eggplant. The creamy combination is gilded with a swirl of sour cream and more of those caramelized onions, then arranged with pita triangles for dipping.
Chicken abadan is a glorious combination of boneless chicken breast, tender scallops and fat shrimp. The silky sauce, tinged with tomato, is intriguingly seasoned; but nothing was overtly spicy that we tried. Layers of subtle flavors were never overwhelmed by heat for heat's sake.
You'll find the traditional dish chelo kabab-e-barg on just about any Persian restaurant's menu, but you won't always find it as well done as here. The beef tenderloin is marinated with herbs and spices, then broiled. The result is beautifully tender, full-flavored beef cubes, charred but still pink and juicy inside.
If you're in the mood for stew, have the lamb bademjune. (Bademjune, by the way, is eggplant.) The braised lamb was served over eggplant in a mellow tomato sauce sparked with lemon. A few tiny sour olives graced its center.
The Middle Eastern desserts run to the intensely sweet, like baklava and Turkish delight. You can also get American cheesecakes and chocolate rum cake. That evening the kitchen had just made creme caramel, which was pleasant and creamy but not as spectacular as the rest of our meal.
You would think a small-scale operation like the Orchard Market would get into trouble when all 11 tables unexpectedly fill up at the same time, as they did the Thursday night we were there. Not so. I was impressed by how well the one waiter and one waitress handled all the customers, and how quickly the kitchen got the food out.
If there was any flaw in our meal at the Orchard Market, it was the kitchen's failure to recognize Americans' limited capacity for basmati rice. I love its nutty flavor and slightly chewy texture, but the mountainous pile on each plate dwarfed the entree. And I hate to see that much food go to waste.