In a strip mall, this Persian pearl outshines its setting

Word-of- mouth leads diners to Orchard Market

Eats

November 13, 2003|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Good luck finding the Orchard Market and Cafe if you don't know where to look. It's tucked in the back of a Towson strip mall, invisible from the street.

Yet, with no liquor license and no signs to attract drive-by traffic, this little Persian restaurant has managed to survive, and even thrive, since opening in 1988. A large part of the restaurant's appeal is probably its obscurity. People like to discover hidden treasures.

However, obscurity alone wouldn't keep this restaurant going. Customers come back, and tell their friends about Orchard Market, because it has interesting, well-prepared food and a warm, inviting interior.

Though the restaurant isn't particularly fancy, it exudes class. The tablecloths are white, small candles on the tables are lighted, and soft music plinks through the air. Red and gold tapestries hang from the ceiling, a plaster column is draped in purple silk, and artwork lines the mustard-colored walls.

The servers are attentive and happy to make suggestions but, perhaps because of a language barrier, don't make much effort to explain the food. Little glitches like forgotten forks are quickly remedied.

Don't bother looking for Persia on a modern map - the country's name was changed to Iran about 70 years ago. Owner Jason Bulkeley says Orchard Market's food is Persian because it harks back to the country's earlier days.

Bulkeley and his wife, Sharareh, purchased the restaurant from original owner Michael Mir in 1997. Sharareh is Iranian, and her mother, Nahid Vaezpour, runs the kitchen and creates many of the unusual recipes.

Orchard Market's menu includes Middle Eastern standards like hummus and kebabs, plus dishes that are unique to Iran, such as chicken or duck fesenjune, which comes with a sweet pomegranate and walnut sauce. For other dishes, Vaezpour takes Persian ingredients, such as Bulgarian feta, pomegranate or sumac, and gives them an American twist.

The result is food that tantalizes with its unusual ingredients, yet seems oddly familiar. Unfortunately, some of these more familiar-tasting dishes are less than exciting.

A warm appetizer of eggplant and artichokes is a good example. The vegetables were combined with black olive slices and Bulgarian feta, then doused in a very American-tasting dill and mustard sauce.

A cold salad of mango and pear also was fine but seemed fairly mundane, featuring ripe, sweet slices of fruit on a bed of fresh mixed lettuce, topped with crumbled Bulgarian feta and a tart drizzle of pomegranate vinaigrette.

A more traditional Persian dish, a creamy chicken and potato mix called salad olvieh, was fresh and light, but, to me, it tasted just like a classic chicken salad brightened with lemon.

The quality of the ingredients and the care with which they are prepared deserve nothing but praise. The eggplant in the warm appetizer was perfectly tender, without a hint of bitterness. The duck in the fesenjune was wonderfully sweet and moist, even if the sauce was almost unbearably sweet.

The calamari and scallops served in another savory appetizer were as tender as any I've ever tasted. And another fish dish, called seafood rashdi, also showed the seafood to perfection, combining shrimp, scallops and fish with tender portobello mushrooms in a rich tomato broth.

As is often the case, one of the simplest dishes was also one of the best. Chunks of lamb were charred on the outside and tender-pink on the inside, served with slices of grilled peppers and tomatoes. As with the other main courses, it was served with basmati rice.

Simple was best when it came to desserts, too. The best thing about them was the saffron ice cream inside a large puff-pastry napoleon. A sweet, airy cake with alternating chocolate and vanilla layers was fine, but a baklava made with a puff-pastry shell instead of intensely sweet layers of pastry was bland.

Orchard Market and Cafe

Where: 8815 Orchard Tree Lane, Towson

Call: 410-339-7700

Open: daily for lunch and dinner, buffet on Sunday 11:45 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Prices: Appetizers $3.75-$8.50, entrees $12.95-$17.95

Credit cards: MC, V

Food: ***

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

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