Do you know what an 11-top is? In restaurant parlance, this is a table of 11 and, believe me, you do not want to be stuck on the tail end of one of those.
When we arrive at Rumi’s Kitchen — a Persian restaurant in Sandy Springs that I’ve long been eager to try — we discovered that an 11-top had walked in not 5 minutes before us. They seem an amiable group of young men in their 20’s who had chosen to cluster in one large conversation circle in the half-opened front door. If I had to guess their function, I would say Dungeons & Dragons Meetup Group or, perhaps, an I.T. Department office party.
The hostess tries to bring them inside to the narrow front bar area but they then block all passage into the restaurant, so she shoos them outside. She just kind of pushes on the perimeter of the group and they all shuffle out the door en masse.
“It’ll be just a few minutes,” she tells us with a smile.
A lesser restaurant than Rumi’s Kitchen would have been completely undone by this party. But Rumi’s has that rare staff that apparently gives better service the busier it gets. Judging by a full house on this recent Sunday night, busy is the constant here.
I had a feeling I’d like the food at Rumi’s Kitchen, but I no idea how great the full package is. Few restaurants in Atlanta have such a clear sense of identity.
Owner Ali Mesghali has bopped around the Roswell Road Persian dining scene for a while. I can remember eating his food at the somber and usually empty Shamshiri. In 2000, he opened Persepolis in a bright and stucco-walled space that looked like it was once a Parthenon-themed Greek restaurant. I mostly remember the cheesy/tatty decor, the excellent food and the mad rush when a fresh platter of kebabs dropped on the lunch buffet.
Oh, and I once went there with a colleague, his wife and their Persian neighbors just a few weeks before the colleague and the Persian wife revealed their affair and ran off. It was an uncomfortable evening despite the excellent kashk badenjoon (eggplant dip with whey and fried onions).
For Rumi’s Kitchen, Mesghali has hired a good local design firm to give the narrow space the pleasantly cramped energy of a popular neighborhood bistro. There’s just enough glittering lights and shimmering fabric to suggest the mysticism for which Rumi, the 13th Century poet, is known.
As you walk into the dining room, you pass the open, tiled oven in which a chef bakes taftoun — the bubbly, crackly flatbreads you will eat far too much of over the course of the meal. Each order comes with fresh tarragon and mint sprigs, feta cheese, butter, radishes and walnuts, though you’ll want to get an order of that kashk bademjoon — as good here as it was at Persepolis. The Rumi’s dip (otherwise known as hummus) also makes fast friends with the flatbread.
Unlike other Persian restaurants around town, Rumi’s gives short shrift to stews that are such an important part of the Persian cooking repertoire. The kitchen makes a really good rendition of ghormeh sabzi, which is a beef or veal stew (veal, according to the menu here) cooked with loads of herbs, kidney beans and sour dried lime, But this restaurant is, at heart, a kebab house.
You should order a variety of kebabs and have them presented on a communal platter. Barg features fat slices of beef tenderloin that has been cut and cooked (counterintuitively) with the grain, which gives the meat a beefy chewiness and grill-crisped edges. I’m more of a fan of the koobideh kebab made with seasoned ground chuck. On the waiter’s advice we also got a chicken kebab, which brought chunks of breast meat that looked gorgeous but had little flavor and a cottony, dry texture. A sprinkle of sumac — the tart, purple seasoning powder placed on each table — helped. But, seriously, we packed up most of the chicken and tried to pawn it off in sandwiches the next day.
All kebabs come with a mound of white and saffron basmati rice that’s so vast you could burrow in it, and a grill-blackened roma tomato. Persians like to mash their tomato into the rice. I told my kids this and they mashed their tomatoes to a fare thee well, but declared the rice was better before. I tend to agree.
Good Persian food, such as this, has flavors that aren’t merely clean but immaculate. Salt, lemon, yogurt, saffron, sumac, grill char: each flavor comes through as a clear, stark chime. You know when you visit someone’s house that is so scrubbed and shined that you know there isn’t an eddy of dust or grimy surface anywhere? That’s what this food tastes like.
But more than anything, I was impressed with how well the staff kept up during our visit as the 11-top next to us kept asking for more Coke and bread.
We skipped dessert but lingered over small cups of strong tea served with cinnamon and saffron sugar cubes. By the time my kids started eating the sugar cubes without any tea, I realized it was time to go.
Was there anything I missed on the menu? And am I right — is the service here really a cut above?
“Remember, the entrance door to the sanctuary is inside you.” — Rumi
“Remember, the entrance door to Rumi’s Kitchen is about a half mile north of I-285.” — Kessler