I first met Ali Mesghali some 15 years ago when he and his family ran a Persian restaurant called Shamshiri in a decrepit shopping strip set hard against I-285.
As I recall the evening, we wandered into an empty dining room and waited for a few moments for someone to appear. I eventually walked into the kitchen calling, “Helloooo, helloooo,” like a nosy neighbor. Mesghali, who appeared to be running a one-man show that evening, apologetically seated us at a table set with a few crumbs from the previous occupant’s bread.
But when our bread arrived — a blistering-hot naan fresh from the tandoor, served with green herbs, cheese and walnuts — all was forgiven. This restaurant didn’t seem ready for a full review, but it was a good tip for folks who like to explore promising international restaurants and don’t mind a poorly graded parking lot and the spare breadcrumb.
Mesghali opened his sophomore venture, Persepolis, just up the street in a former Chinese restaurant with a partner. This time, he had a hit. Not only the Persian ex-pat community embraced this comfortable, rambling, split-level restaurant. Seemingly everyone in Sandy Springs soon learned of the glories of the lunch buffet — a feast of grilled meats, fresh salads, dips and endless sheets of flatbreads fresh from the oven.
But his third restaurant, set on the same stretch of Roswell Road, proved to be the clincher. For Rumi’s Kitchen, Mesghali emptied his savings account, maxed out his credit cards and made the jump from destination ethnic restaurant to destination restaurant. The menu didn’t change much, but the design and ambition certainly did. The name signaled a leap into poetry and romance, and the design of the dining room (by Tony Akly of Restaurant Consulting Group) followed suit. Candlelight, rich tapestries and formally dressed chefs manning a showcase flatbread oven set the tone. It was a bistro, with an ever dressier clientele and a wine list that felt in line with the sophisticated decor.
But it was crowded. The tight, plush dining room could seat 250 customers over the course of a busting-at-the-seams evening, but many others found themselves turned away. My family and I occasionally tried to walk into Rumi’s on a weeknight, only to learn of a 90-minute wait.
Late last year, Mesghali made his most recent move. But this time, instead of ditching his restaurant, he took it with him. In December, he kicked Rumi’s Kitchen three doors down to a much larger space. Now he has a grand restaurant that looks on track to become a true Atlanta landmark.
The Johnson Studio designed this vast space with an eye to the wow factor. Under its soaring ceilings, potted trees don’t look out of place. Paintings the size of boxing rings don’t look out of place.
It is a long room clad in pale tile and creamy white marble, with an open exhibition kitchen along the far side. There, two beautiful tandoor ovens fashioned of rough stone and mortar churn out naan to keep the room fed. Cooks turn skewers of saffron-bathed beef, chicken and lamb over live coals.
The lighting is neither dim nor bright, but with an aqueous glow cast by soft green pendant lights. Subway tiles along a back wall are a pale blue, paler than a robin’s egg.
Now Mesghali feeds more than 400 people on a busy night and still has to turn guests away. Indeed, we have to wait at the bar for about 15 minutes past our 9:15 reservation.
Beyond the bar is a market with a pastry counter, dry goods and a refrigerated case filled with a mixture of fussy gourmet and Persian items. You can buy a six-pack of the fermented yogurt drink called “dough,” or you can buy a chocolate bar in fancy wrapping. Mesghali is already talking of ripping out the market and replacing it with more seating. That seems wise.
When you do get to your table, you will find that Mesghali has updated the now-standard Persian restaurant menu with some clever near-fusion dishes that don’t lose track of their roots.
You can start with an order of terrific chicken wings, charred to a crunch on the grill and tinged yellow with the essence of saffron. Lamb sliders arrive on pieces of naan you fold up like a taco, encasing roasted tomato, mint, yogurt and Persian cucumber pickle into a messy mouthful of greatness.
Best of show: a stew of lamb neck in an herbed potato broth. You pull the lush meat from the bone and spoon it with its sauce over dill-fava bean rice.
We are tempted by the too-sweet cocktails, such as a tarragon-spiked vodka lemonade. But next time, I’ll pay more attention to the now-serious wine list. From Vouvray to Zinfandel to the Bordeaux-style Chateau Musar from Lebanon, I see lots of wines that will warm to the clean flavors of Persian food.
As I look at the wine list, I can’t help feeling proud for Ali Mesghali and his family. From his hole-in-the-wall ethnic joint to this trailblazing new rendition of Rumi’s Kitchen, he has come a long way. I love stories about immigrants who cook well, think big and give the city something it hasn’t seen before. In fact, it’s what I like best about dining in Atlanta.
Rumi’s Kitchen. 6112 Roswell Road, Sandy Springs. 404-477-2100, www.rumiskitchen.com.