There is a scene in the movie “Midnight in Paris” where the protagonist leaves a Parisian bistro in the 1920s to which he has been magically transported. He rounds the corner but then doubles back, only to discover he has returned to the modern day. That bistro that had been so full of life and laughter in a previous era was now a neon-lit laundromat.
I can look around Atlanta and see some of the ghosts of restaurants past. When I drive past the Buckhead Bottle Bar, looking stark against the moonscape of stalled construction all around it, I remember it as the restaurant Blais, where my friends and I ate a 31-course menu prepared by the pre-“Top Chef” Richard Blais. After that epic meal we walked through the raunchy streetscape that used to be, as drunks spilled from bars and a girl on a swing swayed in a window front, her miniskirt fluttering.
But I haven’t been here long enough to remember when three popular restaurants lined up all in a row on Peachtree Street, like a small dining oasis in the no-man’s land between Midtown and Buckhead. Shipfeifer, serving then-exotic Mediterranean food and gyro wraps, opened in 1975. Huey’s, a New Orleans beignet and ice cream spot that soon expanded its offerings, opened in 1983. R. Thomas Deluxe Grill, with its juicy burgers and health food options, opened in 1985. These three patio-fronted restaurants were a friendly beacon for the young families moving back to Brookwood Hills and surrounding neighborhoods, and to the office workers in the new high-rises of Midtown.
Today, only R. Thomas remains from the original three. Its rambling garden setting and sidewalk aviary, which The Atlanta Journal-Constitution described in 1986 as “ultramodern,” remains charmingly intact. Huey’s sports a “for lease” sign. But Shipfeifer, empty since 2008, has an exciting new tenant — one that is bringing life back to this newly desirable location.
Sufi’s Atlanta is the first serious Persian restaurant to open intown. Fans of this cuisine who live far from the Persian nexus of Sandy Springs have reason to rejoice. Sufi’s matches, point for refined point, the better examples of Persian cuisine. The naan flatbreads come hot from the oven with a generous platter of sabzi khordan (herbs, cheese and nuts). The stews have intriguing, packed flavor that will engage your tongue. The kebobs showcase exemplary technique, each morsel of meat as spiced as it is charred and as tender as it is juicy.
The renovation of the building has been transformative. A tiled bread oven fronts an open kitchen, and the sight of cooks removing bubbly rounds of naan with long peels immediately engages the “feed me” center of your brain. To one side lies a bar (that would tempt if the restaurant served alcohol) and a patio that’s well-shielded from Peachtree traffic by a hedge of potted trees. To the other lies the dining room, all high-gloss furniture, maroon walls and glowing lights — elegant but also a bit cramped as you squeeze through to a table.
If you remember to bring a bottle of wine, the staff will be happy to open it and provide decent glassware. They’re also eager to walk you through the menu, which follows the Persian restaurant template to the letter.
Soon you are feasting on that bread, cut into sharp wedges that you wrap around the goodies in the sabzi khordan plate: radishes, fresh frills of tarragon, poached walnuts, butter, cilantro, crumbly white cheese.
You’ve been smart to order appetizers, which come in time for the last wedges of bread. Kashk bademjan ($7) brings eggplant spread as rich as butter, the roasted flesh creamed with yogurt whey and then topped with palate-tingling fried onions and mint. Warm dolmeh (stuffed grape leaves, $6) taste unlike any other, popping with juicy beef and raisins, so delicious swiped through their bed of thick, cool yogurt. Shirazi salad ($5), a dice of cucumber, onion and tomato in a sprightly olive oil and lemon dressing, is as good as any out there, thanks to a generous hand with fresh parsley. The herb isn’t chopped but rather plucked, mini-floret by mini-floret.
With any luck, your kebobs arrive before you succumb to the temptation of more bread, because you will feast. Joojeh ($17) brings a whole Cornish hen, cut into eight pieces and threaded on skewers. You want to gnaw each meaty, bony piece clean and revel in the flavors of saffron and char, in the crisp skin and the supple meat, so tender from its yogurt marinade.
A Soltani kebob platter ($19) brings the beefy best of both worlds — one skewer of seasoned ground koubideh and one of marinated filet mignon. It may not be quite the juicy revelation of the Soltani kebob platter at Rumi’s Kitchen in Sandy Springs, but it doesn’t disappoint the beef freak at our table.
But, better, get the rack of lamb. Better yet, get it at lunch, when $17 buys you five jewel-like lamb chops, each fat nugget of saffron-tinged meat on the tip of a dainty, perfectly cleaned bone.
All kebobs sidle a huge mound of basmati rice with a charred tomato for mashing into it. For a $3 surcharge you can sub out one of the great flavored rice dishes. Shirin polo — with its lavish gilding of pistachio, carrot, orange zest, raisins and almond slivers — has all the glamour. But I’m still thinking about the baghala polo, turned forest green with dill and dotted with creamy fava beans.
I also give big ups to the fesenjoon ($16), a chicken stew in a ruddy sauce of ground walnuts and pomegranate molasses that can elsewhere taste too sweet and cloying. Here, there’s a meaty flavor to the sauce that gives it an underlying umami boost like a good bass line.
If I have a (small) complaint, it’s that the service doesn’t always keep up with the ambitions of this not-inexpensive restaurant. These friendly, welcoming folks can leave you with drained water glasses throughout your meal and neglect to check in after entrees arrive. They offer dessert before clearing the table but don’t offer to box up your leftovers. Rather, you get a lone clamshell to cram everything into yourself.
A vegetarian might not take to this otherwise veg-friendly spot if they attempt to order the dolmeh that, delicious as they are, are listed as vegetarian on the menu.
That said, Sufi’s Atlanta should satisfy everyone who loves Persian food. More than that, it brings good energy back to a stretch of Peachtree that is looking less like the ghost of the past and more like the promise of the future.SUFI’S ATLANTA 1814 Peachtree St., Atlanta, 404-888-9699 Food: Refined Persian cuisine that competes with the best in town Service: Friendly and attentive, but not always as polished and prompt as the prices would suggest Best dishes: Cornish hen kabob, lamb chop kabob, fesenjoon stew, stuffed grape leaves Vegetarian selections: Quite a few, including an atypical spicy vegetarian stew Credit cards: All major Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday Children: Best for older kids in the dining room; little ones would be happier on the patio Parking: Private lot by day, valet by night Reservations: Yes Wheelchair access: Full Smoking: No Noise level: Moderate to high Patio: A lovely one Takeout: Yes