In the final scene of the final episode of No Reservations, Anthony Bourdain espoused his belief that “the extent to which you can walk in someone else’s shoes, or at least eat their food, it’s a plus for everybody.” As tensions between Iran and the West continue to escalate, I don’t foresee a visit to Tehran in my future. So I figure the very least I can do to better understand Persian culture is to eat more of its food. To help me on that quest, I turned to my friend Paige, a Persian who works in one of Las Vegas’ best off-Strip restaurants.
I was shocked when she recommended Zaytoon Mediterranean Market & Restaurant, which is in my neighborhood. I’d passed it hundreds of times and never bothered to check it out, primarily because its sign offered no indication that it was more than another Mediterranean joint. It’s sad that restaurants with obscure cuisine often resort to such generic labels. (The greatly missed Afghan restaurant Kabob Palace did the same thing.) Sure, more accurate signage might frighten unadventurous (or bigoted) diners. But they’d also intrigue those of us looking for something new and exciting.
The restaurant is actually a small section of a fairly large market that also offers fresh produce, a deli section and a juice bar. It’s modestly decorated, with a TV screen in one corner that shows Persian music videos. The appetizer section of the menu features a wide variety of dips ($4 each), most similar to things you’d find in any Mediterranean restaurant. In contrast, most of Zaytoon’s six kabobs ($10-$17) differ from the skewers of cubed meats you usually find. House specialties include various casseroles ($12), sandwiches ($9) and meat and seafood entrees ($10-$23)
While I’ve had Persian cuisine several times, I’ve never enjoyed it with someone who grew up eating it at home. So my wife and I asked Paige to accompany us on our first visit to Zaytoon, and to order for the table.
We began with an off-the-menu special: fessenjoon over tadik ($14). I’ve had fessenjoon (also spelled fessenjan) before. It’s a delicious stew of chicken, walnuts and pomegranate molasses, and Zaytoon’s is an excellent example of the dish at its best, enhanced by the tadik, a wonderful sticky rice that’s cooked in a pan of butter until it caramelizes on the bottom. We also ordered a very nice Shirazi salad of cucumbers, tomatoes and onions in a lime mint dressing ($4).
We shared four entrees — an ambitious order that resulted in plenty of leftovers. Barg kabob ($17) is a filet mignon pounded thin and marinated in olive oil, garlic and saffron, then grilled on a skewer and served with traditional saffron basmati rice. Koobideh kabob ($10) is a mixture of minced beef, sumac (ground dried lemon), salt, pepper and garlic, wrapped around a skewer and grilled over an open flame. Baghali polo ($12) was another off-the-menu special: slow-cooked lamb shank in a tomato base served over a dill and fava bean rice known as sabzi polo. Finally, zereshk polo ($14) is traditional saffron rice served with sautéed barberry and either roasted chicken or chicken kabob.
Of the meat dishes, the steak and beef kabobs stood out. The filet was incredibly tender, and the seasoning on both was amazing. Our chicken kabob and lamb shank were both tasty and well-prepared, but neither was anything you couldn’t find in countless other restaurants. All three of our rice preparations were excellent, with the bayberry version ranking highest in my book.
The only thing I probably wouldn’t order again was our dessert. Falloudeh ($4) is a rosewater sorbet topped with frozen noodles and drizzled with sour cherry juice. While I give it high marks as the most unusual dish of the evening, it just didn’t do it for me. But I’m glad I tried it.
I can’t promise a visit to Zaytoon will help improve relations between the U.S. and Iran. But its name does translate to olive — a heavenly fruit that represents peace in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. So perhaps it’s worth a shot. Either way, you’re sure to enjoy some interesting new food.
Zaytoon Mediterranean Market & Restaurant 3655 S. Durango Drive, 685-1875. Read more about the Las Vegas dining scene on Al Mancini’s blog, www.almancini.net.