After moving to the North Shore in 2005 my exposure to Persian culinary traditions increased exponentially.
I was immediately a fan of the esthetic of the food with its bright colours, perfumed aromas, and more often than not, the ornate tableware in which koresh, kashk, berenj, or mast were served.
I will confess, however, that my first few meals in local Iranian and Afghan eateries left me scratching my head a bit in terms of taste. Beyond the eminently accessible, ubiquitous kebabs, I was surprised by the seemingly understated nature of the cuisine. I expected a bigger spice punch from the stews or a heavier dose of garlic from …well, from anything. Although garlic is not a predominant flavour on North Shore Persian menus I am assured that it features heavily in the cuisine of Northern Iran.
As with most foods that have confounded me initially (I’m looking at you, sea urchin) I stuck with it and over time built a deep fondness for Persian cooking. What I once might have described as bland I began to see as subtle, what I found cloyingly perfumed I eventually reinterpreted as complexly fragrant in appropriate doses, and the shockingly simple became elegantly pure and unencumbered. I now relish a slowly, lovingly prepared ghormeh sabzi (stew of braised meat with mixed green herbs and beans), especially with cubes of lamb and a heaping bowl of tahdig (rice that has been lightly scorched, taken from the bottom of the cooking vessel, yielding a dome-like shape and welcomingly crispy layer).
Through the years I also began to understand that just like all styles of cuisine, there are good and bad examples of Persian food readily available. I have consistently reported on some of my favourite Persian restaurants in these pages already and this week I am happy to recommend a new addition, perhaps one of the very best I have visited, in fact, though I am loath to use this terminology as the same immodest language appears on a banner outside the restaurant in question!
Rumi House Restaurant has taken over the space once occupied by the long-running (but in need of serious renovation) Neighbourhood Noodle House on the east side of Lonsdale Avenue approaching 14th Street. The space has been gutted and wholly redesigned, resulting in an airy, spacious, warm and elegant restaurant that I noted on my recent visit does a brisk family-style service; several tables of eight or more diners were tucking into mountains of kebabs, stews, bread, rice, and dips when I dropped in early on a Sunday evening. There was a sense of occasion to the dinner service, with the inspiring din of diners letting loose over a well made meal filling the room.
Rumi House also does a brisk takeaway business with an easy to use online ordering system. I took advantage of this service as I am neck deep in home renos right now and could sadly not spare the time for a proper sit-down meal at the restaurant. Also, indulgently, I love my kebabs with a cold beer and Rumi House, like many of its contemporaries, is not a licensed establishment. The takeout approach, it turns out, affected the food quality not one iota; every dish was expertly realized, generously portioned, and still piping hot when I got it all home.
I credit Rumi House with having the single best kashke bademjan (literally “kashk”, or yogurt whey, with eggplant) on the North Shore. This traditional roasted eggplant dip is capable of surprising depth of flavour when well prepared and here it was bordering on sublime. The creamy, deep brown dip boasted a silken texture, complex notes of slowly roasted eggplant, and hints of the rich, rewarding flavour of intensely caramelized onion, which was buried in the centre of the dish. Rumi House was regrettably out of sangak (the long, sheet-like bread that pairs so nicely with this dip) but supplied fresh pita bread in its stead, which adequately did the job of mopping up the flavoursome cold dish. Don’t visit Rumi House without trying this dish, trust me.
The crux of my takeout meal was an assortment of kebabs, including kubideh (ground beef fire-grilled on skewers), boneless chicken, and vegetable (made with zucchini, eggplant, bell pepper, and onion). Rice, pita, and roasted tomatoes accompanied the skewers in quantities more generous than the family and I could manage in a single sitting. The plump and juicy chunks of grilled chicken were excellent and represented good value for the price, but it was the kubideh – tender, succulent, perfectly seasoned, bearing the signature flavour of fire-grilled beef – that were the star of the kebab lineup. For me, the sign of good kubideh is that I can eat it hot, at room temperature, or even cold straight out of the leftovers box in the fridge without noting any diminished quality. As it happens, this is precisely what I did with my overzealous order of eight skewers between four meat eaters, in addition to the chicken.
A side of house-made pickles were a revelation. Crunchy mixed vegetables, that included bits of cauliflower and zucchini, were marinated in a mouth-puckeringly tangy, herbaceous brine that helped to cut straight through the richness of the grilled meats.
A final dish of mast-o-khiar (thick yogurt with cucumber and loads of herbs) was also an excellent, slightly acidic, refreshing side for the hefty meal. This is the dish to which it took me the longest to grow accustomed. It is so similar to the Greek tzatziki in many ways, but offers no garlicky bite; my expectations versus the dish’s delivery were so stark in my novice days of eating Persian food that I was invariably left wanting. Now, I appreciate mast-o-khiar’s understated refreshing quality.
Five mains, two dips, bread, and pickles came to just over $90. I would suggest my order was enough food for eight people.
1352 Lonsdale Avenue. 604-990-9986.