The world is so small these days, being surprised by something has become a rarity. There’s no corner of the earth someone you know hasn’t ventured to. And with global culture now so homogenous, everything can start to feel the same. This is something the world of cuisine has to battle with daily. Now that everyone knows sushi, has a favourite Chinese, sups on sub-Saharan dishes weekly and has eaten their way through Europe, what’s there left to discover? What’s new?
Such a state of culinary peril led Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adria to start treating food as though it were components of a chemical kit and serving such hideous-sounding creations as sea urchin ice cream and shrimp brain jelly. It might not be nice, but it’s new: have three Michelin stars.
Now, if I were giving out Michelin stars, I start by giving them to Iranian restaurants. They’re not only new to most people, but the cuisine is practically out of a detox book, and is among the best I have ever tasted. Which is a huge, and welcome, surprise.
Those of us new to the Arab world tend to have a rather dim view of Iran, thanks to the frequent Iran vs. The World spats and a glut of negative press regarding the Islamic Revolution. Indeed, with the nuclear issue so prominent (it tends to swamp all other perceptions of the country) when many Westerners think of Iranian cuisine, they imagine people nibbling on plutonium. Which is startlingly inaccurate and a huge shame.
The Persian people have a long and impressive history, and you need only glance at the name of the Gulf Hotel’s Iranian restaurant, Takht-e Jamsheed, and then Google it, to realise the name translates as ‘Throne of Jamhseed’ and is a synonym of Persepolis, the capital of the great Persian empire. To emphasise this, the restaurant is ornamented with large, impressive (though rather plastic) pillars, and bas reliefs emblematic of the Persepolis ruins. Dimly lit and draped with regal red hues, the restaurant is imbibed with grandeur, making a dining experience rather special. Adding to the atmosphere was an authentic Iranian band (so I was told – I wouldn’t know one if I saw one), playing unobtrusively on a keyboard and some kind of string instrument, which made for a pleasant melody.
The menu is a dazzling array of dishes most people have never encountered, and yet which should be compulsory eating for anyone with taste buds. I started with zeytoon paravard, a wonderful pomegranate and olive dip which is both sweet and tart, the flavour of which literally explodes in your mouth. The Shirazi salad (cubed radish, cucumber and tomato) was dressed perfectly with a light vinegar, and nicely balanced the enormous taste of the dip. The starters were served with a basket of bread and a plateful of herbs: the latter of which, if the diet books I’m reading at the moment are anything to go by, are a virtual shield against disease. For proof, just look at Xerxes (ruler of the Persians) in the film 300. He’s positively glowing and presumably ate nothing but this kind of fodder.
For a main, I opted for the ekbatan kebab, a lightly marinated seafood skewer, which came loaded with prawns, kingfish and hammour. One of the best parts of Iranian cuisine is, oddly enough, the rice. I’m not overly keen on the grain, and know a fair few people who won’t touch the stuff with a bargepole. But Iranian rice is unlike any other, lighter than candyfloss and with a whole variety of tasty additions. I was served three different types: one with dried redcurrants, one cooked with dill and broad beans, and the other plain. All three were superb.
I’m not a dessert person and was the size of a barrel after my indulgence, but couldn’t help eying something that went by faloodeh on the menu, and is hugely popular in Central Asia and across the Indian Subcontinent. Ice and corn flour swamped in rose water and lime, the waitress (who incidentally was second to none) assured me I could manage it and in my stupor I nodded in agreement. When it came it reminded me more of Thai desserts, which tend to comprise of brightly coloured sugared ice and are perfect for a cool down after buckets of chillies. I only managed a few mouthfuls before my belt broke and I gave myself a hernia, but each one was worth it.
I finished with a Persian tea (black with hints of fruit and spices) and surveyed the sparsely attended restaurant that should have been packed on a Friday night. Persepolis might be in ruins, but if you are looking for a restaurant that rules the roost in the Bahrain, Takht-e Jamsheed is it.
The bill (for one) Shirazi salad BD2.500 Zeytoon Paravard BD2.500 Ekbatan kebab BD10.000 Faloodeh BD2.200 Evian water BD1.200 Persian tea BD 1.200 Total (incl. tax/service) BD23.670
Time Out Bahrain staffhttp://www.timeoutbahrain.com