In a former life, I once wrote restaurant reviews.
Yes, it’s true. I had the (freelance) job that many people would kill for: eating and getting paid for it. For a number of reasons, both circumstantial and otherwise, I transitioned away from this. But from time to time, I feel compelled to put my opinions on record regarding a dining experience.
So that bring us to my thoughts today on Shalezah (formerly Shalizar), a much-touted Persian restaurant in NYC that’s the recipient of a Michelin star for the 2011 New York City Michelin Guide.
Let me preface this write-up with the caveat. This isn’t a full-on review. It’s a few of my thoughts regarding one dining experience. One that cost around $50, and left me feeling oddly unsatisfied.
I can sum it up in a word that pains me to even type regarding a Persian restaurant: disappointing. Why?
The food, while mostly tasty, didn’t taste Persian to me. Or just barely.
I wanted so badly to like Shalezah. But ultimately, I just couldn’t, at least not on this particular visit.
Had I not known what Persian food can taste like, the friendly service and “good enough” food would have lulled me into submission. And honestly, I might not have been impressed and might have even wondered what all the fuss is about regarding this Persian cuisine. But because I know better, and the food wasn’t up to par, I felt somewhat, dare I say it, betrayed.
Persian food is so much more refined, nuanced, and beautifully spiced that what was on offer at Shalezah that evening. I want the world to know this, and I want this Michelin starred restaurant to step up to the proverbial plate.
One of Few New York Options
New York City has a dearth of good Persian dining options. Another sentence it pains me to type. Los Angeles has New York walloped in this regard. How, of the few options we do have in New York City, this particular restaurant ended up with the Michelin star, I don’t quite understand. Nearby sister restaurant Persepolis executes Persian food much more fluidly and authentically, in my opinion.
When we were viewing the menu posted outside of the restaurant one recent Friday evening, one of the employees stepped outside and invited us in. This straddled the line between friendly and slightly aggressive, I suppose, but we were planning to dine there anyways, so I mentally shrugged and went with it. It beats the cold shoulder some New York restaurant staff often turn towards their patrons.
Interior Motives: Comfortable, if Sedate
Inside, the restaurant was slightly over halfway full, and the decor was sedate and warm: hardwood floors, exposed brick, wine bottles as adornment. No Persian carpets, miniatures, or other adornments. At that moment, I didn’t take this as anything other than the restaurant going for a more sedate, less “ethnic” decor approach. It was, however, a sign of things to come on the culinary front.
Service overall was friendly and prompt. Yet the problems started with the yogurt spinach dip appetizer we ordered to accompany the complimentary pita, lavash bread, an tahini sauce. Advertised as combo of yogurt, spinach, and garlic, the spinach dip seemed to be studded with feta and/or blue cheese. Odd, and while not terrible, I had to pass, as I can eat small amounts of yogurt, but wasn’t banking on so much cheese. Especially when the dish was advertised mainly spinach and yogurt with no mention of cheese. Instead, I dipped some of the lavash and pita bread on offer into the tahini sauce. I squeezed in some lemon juice, pondered the oddity of tahini as an app at a Persian restaurant, and looked forward to the entrees’ arrival.
The unacknowledged menu substitutions continued with the entree of fish and what was supposed to be accompanied with rice studded with herbs and fava beans. I’d really wanted my friend to try this dish, as it’s a lovely, very typically Persian way, to enjoy fish and rice. Instead, Shalezah’s kitchen subbed two rices–sour-cherry studded rice, and rice with raisins and lentils. Huh? No explanation was offered until we asked for one. Apparently they were out of the rice that normally accompanies the dish. I’m sorry, but fish doesn’t taste good with sour cherry rice. A simple saffron rice would have been a more compatible choice for this dish in any case.
Instead of pointing this out lack of herbed rice to us or giving us the chance to change the order, they brought us the entree and the two rices “so you can try them both” as if this were some sort of ingenious favor. No, not really. A simple acknowledgment of the pending substitution would have been the appropriate course. As it stood, the fish fillet portion was tiny, and served with the “ugly” side up. It was slightly fishy in aroma (worrisome), but butter and salt were used to even out this element. Twenty dollars for this entree felt like a real stretch.
More Saffron, Less Salt, Please
The overuse of butter and under-use of spices cropped up so much during the course of this meal, it became a theme. I found all of the rices overcooked (too soft, but at least they used basmati rice), overly salty, and buttered to the point of being greasy. Keep in mind that I like salt, perhaps a bit too much, and definitely appreciate butter in my rice.
The lamb shank entree was the best part of the meal, but it, too, suffered from a lack of distinct flavor, Persian or otherwise. Texture-wise, the shank was cooked until tender enough to separate easily from the bone. Having wrestled with cooking more than a few lamb shanks into submission in my lifetime, I know it’s not always an easy task. So while the meat’s texture was quite enjoyable, again, the spicing was off. That is to say, nearly non-existent, unless we count salt, of which there was too much. I could have been eating a lamb shank in any type of restaurant: a Greek, Italian, or even French.
By the time the dessert offerings were mentioned, I’d had enough, and we decided to pass. Yes, I was full, but no, not satisfied. It seems the sedate decor Shalezah employs indeed telegraphs a sedate approach to Persian food, at least on this particular occasion.
Hope For The Future
My advice to Shalezah?
- More saffron, less salt, please.
- Shalezah should ease off of the butter.
- Pay better attention to the actual cooking technique and spicing of the dishes.
- Finally, substitutions happen. But they should be acknowledged. Give your diners a choice to opt in or out if you don’t have the foods advertised on your menu.
Perhaps we should’ve made different menu choices. But perhaps not. Heaven knows I’m no purist. Anyone who reads this blog knows I mix and match and play around with fusion, or at the very least, have no problem sometimes tweaking traditional recipes. When restaurants do the same, the results can feel elevated, deflated or just odd. Mastering the basics first, though, is a worthy start. A re-start Shalezah would do well to consider, if their Michelin star hasn’t lulled them into complacency.
If you’ve tried Shalezah and would like to share your thoughts, please do.
1420 Third Avenue (between East 80th and 81st Streets)
New York, NY
Read Full Post »