During the stay of the Royal Pilgrim at Delhi, a marriage was agreed upon between the prince, his son, and the youngest daughter of the emperor, LALLA ROOKH, a princess described by the poets of her time as more beautiful than…any of those heroines whose names and loves embellish the songs of Persia. – From “Lalla Rookh” by Thomas Moore
Sometimes in the obfuscation of modern politics, it’s hard to look past the frightening demagoguery of modern-day Iran to the extremely rich and romantic history of the lands formerly known as Persia. The disconnect is often so stark that much of the region’s cultural fabric seems now totally lost to the West. But it’s in the spirit of those lush, ancient romances that inspired writers like Thomas Moore that the restaurant Lala Rokh (Tulip Cheeks) opened its doors in Beacon Hill a little more than 15 years ago.
If you are new to the cuisine of Persia and surrounding lands, the palette can generally be described as luxuriant and sensuous, with a list of ingredients that include sweet meats, mint, raisins, eggplants, nuts, saffron, rice, cinnamon, sesame, pomegranates and rosewater.
The Anar martini ($12) is a perfect example, blending the last two into a fabulous cocktail that not only tastes wonderful but provides a fragrant flowery bouquet over the entire table, so drink slowly. It was a nice warm up for the appetizer sample plate ($17) which includes your choice of three from the nine on the menu, albeit in smaller portions.
We started with the Maygo, described as “grilled shrimp served with a lemon and shrimp butter sauce.” The shrimp was cooked as it should be, a bit resistant on the outside without being rubbery, chewy on the inside without being mushy, and still maintaining its essential shrimpy-ness within the sauce.
This was followed by the very earthy Borani-E Gharch—sautéed mushrooms (albeit standard button ones) on a modest portion of polenta and topped with yoghurt to balance the semi-heavy garlic. Tasty to be sure, (and perhaps better as a side dish), but not nearly as exotic and stimulating as the surprisingly meaty “rich, smoky blend of grilled eggplant, roasted garlic and tomato” known as Mirza Ghasemi. For me, this was the clear winner.
For the entrees, we began with the Sib ($22), veal medallions stewed with seared apple and saffron. Sure, I feel a twinge of PETA-guilt about eating baby cows but it was totally dispelled the moment the mix melted like a magic potion in my mouth. An instant fan, consuming the rest of the dish became an exercise of restraint, like not wanting to finish a book you love.
It was certainly a hard act to follow and perhaps cast a shadow on the next dish, the staff-recommended Ghormeh Sabzi ($22)—“boneless leg of lamb, red beans and dried lime in a bouquet of aromatic greens.” Much heavier than the previous and smelling much like a mojito, it was a solidly good, earthy dish, but much like post-coital bliss, couldn’t match the enthusiastic food-gasm of the former.
Of the many things at Lala Rokh that deserve praise, something has to be said for the service. From the moment we entered the restaurant, the staff were all smiles, attentive but not intrusive, and genuinely seemed to care if we were happy, as if I were almost a prince, making the restaurant an ideal place to bring your princess. Her cheeks may not sprout tulips, but they’ll certainly leave rosy.