My first Dining Out article was a review of Crystals, near Columbia, published Feb. 1, 1987. Today's article, five years and a month later, is my last. Oh, what fun I have had. Oh, what dinners -- good and bad -- I have eaten.
When I moved to Baltimore in 1974, John Dorsey was writing Dining Out, and Elizabeth Large was writing a regular restaurant column in the Friday paper. I regularly read them both with pleasure and amusement, and I thought the obvious: That person is lucky to get paid to eat in restaurants.
When I took on the column, I learned the unlucky side to the work -- that the pay was for the analysis and the writing and not for the eating, it was for learning to steel myself to hear about experiences that contradicted my own, and it was for becoming brassy enough to say publicly, "That restaurant served me an old fish, and that one knows zilch about how to make a pie." Still, five years later I feel I was lucky to have been paid to eat in restaurants. What I have liked have been both the occasional superb dinner and the social pleasure of coming on so many different people living their lives in so many different places.
I've vacillated over where to go for a last article. I couldn't go spend money wildly as a final gesture. I have to remain responsible because I'll be writing reviews for the twice-yearly Dining Out guide. Then, most of the places that I'd happily pay to feed me, I've written about in the last year or two: for French food, Cafe des Artistes and L'Auberge; for classic American steaks, Prime Rib; for Spanish food, Tio Pepe and Andalucia (in Rockville); for American high-fashion food, the Milton Inn, and then that wonderful collection of restaurants on the Eastern Shore -- the Inn at Perry Cabin, the Imperial Hotel, Ironstone Cafe and Cecile's.
I'm just as enthusiastic about a number of ethnic restaurants whose roots are in the foods of the Middle East, Afghanistan, India and Asia, e.g. Tabrizi, the Helmand, India Grill, the Thai, Busan and No Da Gi. So where should I go to say goodbye? Finally, I settled on the Orchard Market Cafe, 8815 Orchard Tree Lane in Towson [(410)-339-7700], off Joppa Road to the west of Loch Raven Boulevard. No one I know has been disappointed by it, prices are reasonable, and I wanted to eat garlic chicken in eggplant again.
We debated whether to bring wine or beer, chose beer, but in retrospect thought a sturdy red wine would have suited the Persian dishes' subtle but vigorous tastes better. The cafe does not have a liquor license, but it supplies glasses and a corkscrew or bottle opener.
Lighting was softer than we remembered, there was music with a foreign, unobtrusive and interesting character, and a small fountain splashed quietly near the center of the room. We sat at a small table for two under a white papier-mache pressing of the sculpted head of an ancient Middle Eastern king.
Since our first visit, the menu has been enlarged by eight dishes with beautiful names, e.g. chicken Zahedan, chicken Abadan, chicken Isfahan and chicken Tabrizi. We ordered an entree of seafood Bandari ($14.95) from the new menu, together with an appetizer new to us, Haleem Bademjune ($5.95), aash soup ($2.95) and garlic eggplant and chicken ($8.95).
All four were delightful. Haleem Bademjune was a puree of eggplant, lentils, walnuts, garlic and caramelized onion, scattered with chopped green onion and chopped walnuts. At the center, like flower stamens, was sour cream golden with caramelized onion and oil. Tucked in all around were cut triangles of pita, but we liked the puree best from a spoon. It was vegetable mild but potent with garlic and spice.
The soup was an old friend and one of life's great soups: kidney bean, lentil, greens, spice, garlic and pasta, thick as mush, soothing and sustaining.
Seafood Bandari was described on the menu as "jumbo shrimp, scallops and marinated fish in the tradition of the Persian Gulf." The seafood was firm and deliciously sauced with tomato and green onion mixed with a bit of cream and beguiling spices.
And I had my garlic eggplant and chicken, and then wondered whether the garlic hadn't turned shy. I like mine truculent, and wait for the day when a waitress asks me how I'd like my garlic. "Run amok," I'll say. Fortunately, the soft coils of eggplant had had their shoulders to the fire, and the chicken was gentle and sweet from poaching. Both entrees came with a wonderful globe of light, warm, delicately oiled basmati rice.
Persian ice cream and Persian sherbet cost $3.95, but $4.95 bought big, big scoops of each of them, the cream in the one flavored with whispers of saffron and rosewater, the ice in the other prickly with rice noodles and dashed with lime. Zulbia and bamieh ($2.50) were Persian fantasies -- little dough doodles saturated with saffroned sugar syrup. Sweet goodbyes.
I remembered, though, as we were eating, that I had another motive for choosing the Orchard Market Cafe. It sells what is in my experience the best basmati rice in town, Elephant Brand, 5 kilos or 11 pounds for $12.95. "Be Elephant Wise . . . Eat No. 817," it says on the burlap bag, exported by Deva Singh Sham Singh, Amritsar, India. I have plans.Next: A "new" reviewer