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May 09, 2008

Orchard Market & Cafe

Haleem BademjuneDominic Armato
Continuing the recent theme of exploring cuisines with which I only have a passing familiarity, this month's Charm City Hounds outing was to a Persian restaurant in Towson. My previous experience with Persian was limited to a dinner my ladylove and I shared at the widely known and respected LaLa Rokh while on a trip to Boston over five years ago. But this was in the pre-blogging days (for me, anyway), and due to the combination of time and lack of my own writing to refer to, I was left with only the vague memory of a cuisine that was quite exciting to me, embracing some of the Middle Eastern conventions with which I was familiar, but veering off into novel pairings and flavors. However novel, though, I wouldn't call my first experience with Persian surprising. It's an unfortunate habit of Americans to refer to any food produced within 2000 miles of Baghdad as "Middle Eastern" when that's about as useful and specific a term, from a culinary standpoint, as "European". Lebanese and Persian are, in my limited experience, about as similar as French and Italian -- probably less -- yet both routinely fall under the same blanket. Recognition of the true diversity of the region's foods is long overdue, and restaurants like Orchard Market & Cafe are exciting because of their ability to educate an ignorant public (among which I include myself) about the very much plural cuisines of the Middle East.

Eggplant & ArtichokeDominic Armato
While the name Orchard Market & Cafe conjures up images of sandwich shops, it's actually an intimate little gem of a neighborhood restaurant, improbably tucked into a strip mall that's hidden behind a furniture store, a stone's throw from a dozen fast food and carryout pizza joints. As somebody who has a deep love for low profile ethnic eateries, I'm a firm believer in the underappreciated culinary potential of the nondescript strip mall. But it's rare to find such a place that's so downright warm and cozy. The incongruity stems from the restaurant's origins as an actual market and cafe, opened in the late '80s, that morphed into a full-service restaurant with the hiring of Iranian expatriate Nahid Vaezpour in 1990. Though the restaurant evolved, its location did not, and Vaezpour -- a widowed mother of 18 before joining Orchard -- now serves dishes that are both foreign and comforting, capturing the essence of the meals she'd prepared for her family while back in Iran. Our dinner was a preplanned affair, a rapid-fire succession of communal dishes that left us with fleeting tastes of a wide variety of unfamiliar foods. While meals like this are a wonderful way to get a sense of the cuisine in a fuzzy, delirious fashion, they're not conducive to the sort of analytical overthinking with which I typically approach my meals. As such, I'll have to forego my usual level of detail in favor of sometimes vague impressions. Hopefully this won't make the food seem any less compelling, because it deserves your interest.

Mango ShrimpDominic Armato
We started with the Haleem Bademjune, billed as "a dip of eggplant and beans with sour cream, garlic, walnuts and spices, similar to baba ganoush". Similar it was, and I think I would have identified it as such had I been blindfolded. And while a creamy, comforting expression of eggplant, it was very familiar to me and, as such, far less compelling than the dishes to follow. I did note, with disappointment, that the accompanying pita was rather dry and flat (in flavor -- in shape, a given). Some would call this picking nits, but a good dish deserves good bread, and this wasn't. The second appetizer, however, was one of the highlights of the evening. The Eggplant & Artichoke arrived, a warm, melty mess, bound with a mild Bulgarian feta and swimming in a sauce laced with Dijon and dill, both pungent and very, very sweet. I suspect whole artichokes are not to be found in the kitchen, which is unfortunate, but right or wrong this didn't detract from my enjoyment of a strong-willed dish.

Mushroom ZabanDominic Armato
The third appetizer wasn't a troubled dish, per se, there just wasn't much to get excited about. The Mango Shrimp were sauced with a chutney that was built on onions and garlic and lightly spiced, but despite these additions it came across mostly as shrimp in a savory mango puree. The dish was inoffensive, but forgettable. The Mushroom Zaban, on the other hand, may have been my favorite dish of the evening. It wasn't much to look at, but the curried poached veal tongue with onions and portobello mushrooms had a luscious, earthy richness that I loved. I am, admittedly, partial to braised meats, but this was a particularly fine specimen. The curry wasn't so much a primary ingredient as it was a light accent -- a faint whisper -- to lend a touch of brightness to the succulent, silken, not-quite-beefy intensity of the tongue. This was the kind of meltingly tender meat that you want to linger on your palate. It's a dish to make a believer of tongue skeptics.

KoobiedehDominic Armato
The appetizers out of the way, we moved on to more substantial fare. The entrees opened with the Koobiedeh which was, like the Haleem Bademjune, very familiar to me. It was a ground beef mixture lightly seasoned, formed over skewers and grilled. It was then topped with sumac and served with rice. I enjoy simple grilled meats quite a bit, but I found this particular version a little mundane. It was tender, with a pleasing texture and a little bit of char, but it struck me as underseasoned. I think a little acid, most obviously lemon, might've been all that was necessary to wake it up. I considered requesting some, but by the time I was in a position to flag somebody down, we'd devoured it -- a testament to the fact that while less than great, it was still tasty.

Chicken AbadanDominic Armato
The next entree had some interesting things going on, but felt like it didn't quite come together. The Chicken Abadan combined chicken with a token amount of shrimp and scallops, and covered them in an abundant tomato-based sauce with curry and saffron. The first problem was that the sauce just didn't feel balanced to me, as if all of the flavors were present but hadn't quite come together into that magical cohesive whole. And while chicken, scallops and shrimp have an affinity for each other, here the seafood felt more like an afterthought. And even if I set aside my boneless skinless chicken breast prejudice (is there a more boring, flavorless cut in the known meat universe?), despite being smothered in the sauce, the chicken didn't seem one with it. I wasn't in the kitchen and I don't know how it was prepared, but the feeling was that of a "take chicken breast, top with seafood, ladle sauce" preparation. This makes it sound awful, and it wasn't at all. There were interesting flavors and a good dish was in there somewhere. It just didn't fulfill its potential.

Dried Plum LambDominic Armato
The Dried Plum Lamb I found frustrating, because while I enjoyed it a lot, it felt just barely incomplete. I love crossing that sweet/savory divide, and a sweet meat entree is one of the trickiest expressions of such. It's a risky proposition that often turns out poorly. In Persian cuisine, though? Old hat. It would seem they throw together meats and fruits with reckless abandon. Here, the lamb was stewed in a sauce made with tomatoes, pomegranate, lemon and dried plums, and paired with thick slabs of tender butternut squash. The butternut squash should have been the key. With pomegranate, lemon and plum, it was a very bright dish that needed grounding and the starchy but sweet vegetable almost brought it down to earth -- but not quite. Though delicious, it lacked a certain roundness of flavor that I think could have been achieved if the meaty intensity of the lamb had been developed a little more. But I still enjoyed it quite a bit, and a couple of people at our table declared it their favorite.

Duck FesenjuneDominic Armato
I had no such reservations, however, about the Duck Fesenjune. Not only was it a delicious, well-executed dish, but it was exactly the kind of unfamiliar but utterly compelling flavor profile I'd been hoping to try. Our duck leg was perfectly poached, moist and tender, with an orange flavor that was intense and sweet. The accompanying sauce, made with pomegranate and walnuts, is touted on the menu as a Persian classic. But what's classic to Persians, in this case, is new to me, and I loved it. There was nothing subtle about it, sweet and saucy and full-flavored, but this one came together in a way some of the other entrees didn't. This was also in the running for my favorite of the evening, and it's what I found most reminiscent of our meal at LaLa Rokh.

DessertsDominic Armato
By this time the little fellow had had quite enough, so we quickly stuffed some desserts in our mouths and ran off. I remember a moist cake with sweet frosting, punctuated with pomegranate seeds and nuts that provided a lovely textural contrast in addition to their flavors. I'm not a fan of baklava that's drowning in honey, so it was nice to get a version that let the pastry and nuts share the stage. I would have liked to sit and savor them over some Persian tea or coffee, but it wasn't in the cards.

All in all, a lovely meal with a couple of exceptional dishes where even the misses were enjoyable, if flawed. I hate to keep coming back to LaLa Rokh, but at the moment that's my only basis of comparison when it comes to Persian. LaLa Rokh was very refined, with pure flavors and ethereal aromatics. It's clear that Orchard Market & Cafe comes from the same tradition, but here the food is hearty and comforting, more evocative of the kitchen table than the grand dining room. One gets the sense that Vaezpour is cooking for the restaurant in much the same manner that she did for her children back in Iran. Some dishes are more successful than others, but they're all welcoming, all prepared with love, and each a lesson in the flavors of a cuisine that demands and deserves to be considered an entity all its own.

Orchard Market & Cafe
8815 Orchard Tree Ln.
Towson, MD 21286
Tue - Thu11:30 AM - 4:00 PM5:00 PM - 9:00 PM
Fri - Sat11:30 AM - 4:00 PM5:00 PM - 10:00 PM
Sun11:45 AM - 4:00 PM5:00 PM - 9:00 PM


Hey Skillet! Love your top chef rankings! I heard Top Chef is filming the finale this weekend (you can confirm by googling). I say hit up Buddakhan NYC to see if Dale's "on a break" right now? and/or Foxtail for Antonia, Mai House for Spike etc... O and keep up the good work! I'm always checkin back for your recap/rankings!

My mother was a French Jew from Morocco, so I agree with your comments regarding "Middle Eastern" cuisine. There is, however one dish that I can only label that way. Schwarma. Virtually the whole of the middle east claims it as their own- and of course the Greeks have gyro. BUT, should you find yourself in Southern California, there's a small chain serving the best Armenian style schwarma I've ever had, along with great tarna and passable tabbouleh. Oh...and order an extra side of the addictive turnip pickles, dyed a lovely shade of pink with beet juice. Zankou Chicken is a plastic table sort of place, but the food cannot be beat!

There's a great Lebanese place in New Brunswick, NJ, right around the corner from where my mother works. I have no idea what it's called, my mother has always just called it "Pierre's", after the owner/chef/server. It's the absolute anti-chain, a little dark place, sunken a few steps down from the sidewalk in the basement of a law office. A pair of picnic tables for seating, and the grill jammed in right behind the counter where you order. Most of his customers are greeted by name. It's a place definitely worth checking out if you're ever in or passing through Central NJ (if it's still there, I haven't been in years).

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