Many restaurants have been experiencing hard times in recent months. People have been holding on to their money more, they're eating at home, and/or they're subsisting on an eternity of pizzas. Into this feastsout, frugality-in atmosphere, at least three glorious new ethnic places have opened in one year: Thai Landing and the Helmand (Afghan), both on Charles Street, and Orchard Market, a Persian cafe in Towson. All three serve interesting, beautifully prepared food at low prices, and should draw any world-weary, penny-pinching food cynic back out into the world of public dining.
The Orchard Market for economic reasons has located in an out-of-the-way shopping center. It's easy to find, with directions: From Joppa Road, immediately east of the Orchard Inn restaurant (1528 E. Joppa Road) and west of Loch Raven Boulevard and of Gardiners furniture store (1530 E. Joppa Road), a narrow drive leads to a group of stores hidden from view. A bright yellow awning arches over the entryway.
Inside, the restaurant is mostly white - white tables, white tile and a peach-pink wall. On one side, there are Persian commodities on shelves: bags of basmati rice, spices, including saffron, fruit syrups, coffees and teas. All are for sale. At the back, refrigerated commercial cases display foods for a carryout trade. Fewer than a dozen round, white, wooden tables sit around the room, among tile islands that support visual diversions: a bright, goldwashed Persian coffeepot; a pale yellow vase of artificial flowers. The look is clean and relaxed.
A mimeographed menu lists appetizers and salads, sandwiches for lunch, and entrees, and is supplemented by a listing of specials on a chalkboard at the back. Nothing should alienate the cautious. Everything we tried was delicious and intelligently and scrupulously prepared.
Three of us began with salad Olvieh ($3.95), hummus ($3.95) and a bowl of what our waiter called peasant soup ($2.95). The French chef M. Olivier created salat Olivie in the 1860s for diners in Moscow (where I first sampled it). It consists of an unusual combination of chicken, potatoes, pickles, onion, mayonnaise, hard-boiled eggs and green peas, and is excellent at the Orchard Market.
Is hummus familiar to most Americans by now -- its taste, if not its name? It's a smooth paste, sometimes the thickness of whipped cream, and just as often, as at the Orchard Market, the firmer consistency of cool peanut butter. Made with ground sesame seeds, lemon juice, garlic and ground chickpeas, it makes a marvelous appetizer when it's slathered on pita and accompanied by a glass of wine. Orchard Market's hummus offered a good balance of lemon, garlic and salt (The cafe does not have a liquor license, but they supplied us with glasses and a corkscrew, at no cost, for the bottle we brought with us.)
The peasant soup, or aash, was one among the great hearty soups the three of us thought we'd tasted in our lives. When we asked the chef and owner, Michael Mir, about it after dinner, he said that his Iranian customers, too, rave about his aash, and ask him for his secrets. The soup varies of course, he said, with his stocks - how much he reduces them, and what has gone into them. Garnished with onions caramelized in butter, it includes kidney beans, lentils, greens, noodles, spices, onions and cream.
Our main courses were a combination plate of skewered, seasoned ground beef and marinated kebabs of beef tenderloin ($8.95), lamb in tomato sauce over sauteed eggplants ($8.95) and garlic eggplant and chicken ($7.95). The beef sausage and beef cubes were relatively familiar except for a thick layer of a red-purple, likable and faintly acid-tasting dust over the meat, which we learned was sumac, a spice used so extensively in Persian cooking, it was available at a nearby table in a sugar shaker.
The lamb in tomato sauce we all dismissed as conventional at first, but on subsequent tastings, its quality became more apparent. We grew more aware of the subtlety and depth of the sauce, and fonder of the consistencies of meat; smooth, slithery eggplant, and sauce. Our favorite entree, though, was a magical combination of poached chicken, eggplant, sour cream and mysteriously spiced broth.
For dessert, it's possible to return to the folds of Western food and order a slice of Nancy's rum cake ($2.95), made by a friend of Mr. Mir's, and rather like a dense chocolate cake. We preferred a light, intriguing dish of sherbet ($2.95), which was ice-white, prickly with rice noodles, sauced with lime juice, and served with lemon slices. We were also delighted by a rich, saffron-dyed scoop of ice cream ($2.95), with cold honey's stiffness, and rose water's oral perfume.
In sum, go. Don't forget to take cash. You won't need a lot.
* Next Hacienda
Gourmet cafM-X, 8815 Orchard Tree Lane, Towson, 339-7700
Hours: Tuesdays to Sundays 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. for lunch; dinner 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Accepts: Cash and personal checks
Features: persian cooking.