Having mastered the all-American staple of hamburgers, Shiva and Mohammad “Mo” Karimy, the family behind Fat Mo’s, have returned to their culinary roots to open Genie’s Persian Palace, a haven of Middle Eastern food at the nondescript corner of Moores Lane and Franklin Road.
Genie’s splendid all-you-can-eat buffet is a cornucopia of Persian delights: kashk-o-bademjoon (“kashk” for short), fesenjan, ghormeh sabzi and aash are just a small fraction of the exotic delights that await. But among all the khoreshts and kubidehs on Genie’s menu, there’s one familiar item that holds its own against any benchmark we know: the butter. Nestled between musto-khiar (yogurt with feta and cucumbers) and hummus sits a concupiscent pile of creamy homemade curds, churned fresh from Purity milk. The simple detail of homemade butter says a lot about the Karimys’ commitment to freshness.
“We knew how to do homemade butter, we knew how to do homemade yogurt, and we figured out how to do homemade hummus,” says Shiva, adding that Mo arrives in the tiny kitchen at 4 a.m. daily to begin cooking. “Mo is a country boy. He knows how to do things like churn butter.”
After fleeing the Iranian revolution, the Karimys met as students in Istanbul. They later lived for six years in Vienna, where Mo honed his cooking skills. In 1988, they moved to Nashville with Mo’s daughter Shahet, who also works at Genie’s.
The couple first tested the local demand for fresh, high-quality foods at reasonable prices when they launched the Fat Mo’s burger chain in 1991. “We tried the hamburgers in the U.S., and were disappointed by the quality,” Shiva says, adding that grilled ground beef is a staple of traditional Iranian cuisine. Since the debut of Fat Mo’s, the brand has expanded to 13 franchised stores and has, among other honors, been a perennial favorite among Scene readers in the annual Best of Nashville poll.
Having relinquished the Fat Mo’s operations to franchisees, the Karimys set out to remedy a similar disappointment in the local dining offerings from their native country. Citing a lack of Persian buffets in Nashville, Shiva dreamed up the concept of Genie’s, which opened in November.
“I wanted to call it Mrs. Mo’s,” Shiva says, “but my franchisees thought there would be confusion.” So she made a list of things that Americans identify with Persia—including, of course, rugs and cats. It was the whimsical sitcom I Dream of Jeannie that caused the eureka moment. “People know about Jeannie,” she says, though what they might not know is that Barbara Eden, the blinking bombshell of a genie, speaks Farsi, the language of ancient Persia, in the 1965 debut episode.
Shiva’s fluent English is accented by both her native Persian language and her enthusiasm for the restaurant business. As guests enter Genie’s for the first time, Shiva jumps to offer a tour of the steam table and adjacent bar of cold salads. It’s an orientation well worth the time, even if it delays you a minute or two from tucking into a plate piled high with aromatic delicacies.
Just a step inside the front door, Shiva begins the tour with aash, a Persian soup of noodles and beans, which she quickly identifies as the infamous soup of Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi. Then there are the khoreshts, or stews, made with beef and chicken and flavored with earthy ingredients including lentils, spinach, celery, nuts, fruits, herbs and curries.
(Remember: an all-you-can-eat buffet is not a sprint. It’s a marathon of flavors and textures. Pace yourself. You don’t have to eat everything in one go, and for $10, you may as well just return tomorrow. You’ll want to anyway.)
Start with some kashk. The garlicky stew of fried eggplant is so smooth and sweet that it erases all memory of spongy, bitter eggplant and elevates the taste of the shining purple fruit to something worthy of its rich, colorful form. Balance the warm kashk with a cool topping of cream of whey.
Then make a pile of basmati rice, colored with saffron and dotted with barberries, raisins and almonds, on which to ladle the various khoreshts. Lead off with ghormeh sabzi, beef stew redolent with the perfume of dried lemons and fried parsley. You’ll recognize it by the whole citrus fruits bobbing among the leaves. Try the fesenjan, a rich, meaty stew of ground walnuts, pomegranate paste and chicken, which cooks for seven hours to concentrate the unique flavor of the pomegranate. The warm, flavorful stews complement each other without becoming homogeneous, as happens on so many buffets flavored to appeal to a mass audience.
The buffet changes frequently, and not all buffet items appear on the regular menu. On one visit we encountered a sweet-and-sour chicken that was not listed on the menu. Thick with spinach, prunes and walnuts, the medley of earthy, tangy and sweet surprises quickly became a favorite.
Don’t miss the roasted lamb shank. Flavored simply with tomato sauce, salt, pepper, oregano and basil, the tender meat falls from the bone in buttery hunks. And there are the generous, juicy kebabs of beef (kubideh) and chicken, served with fresh charbroiled vegetables. The dinner buffet also includes seafood kebabs.
“It’s the same meat we use at Fat Mo’s,” Shiva says, pointing to the hunks of kubideh. The meat is ground an additional time for a denser texture that binds around the skewer, then flavored with saffron, salt, pepper and fragrant sumac. Mo replenishes the freshly grilled kubideh and chunks of saffron-tinged chicken as quickly as they disappear from the buffet. Like the vegetables—zucchini, peppers and mushrooms among them—the kebab meats remain plump, juicy and hot, never shriveled and aged, like much buffet food.
On the salad side, the embarrassment of riches includes pickled shallots, eggplant relish, creamy chicken salad, walnuts in lime juice and shirazi salad (cucumbers, tomatoes, onions and parsley with olive oil and lime juice). The Karimys also serve tabbouleh (bulgur wheat with parsley, olive oil and lemon juice) and fattoush (a refreshing mix of parsley, mint, tomatoes, scallions, pita bread, cucumbers and radish). While neither dish is strictly Persian, Americans expect such items on a Middle Eastern menu, Shiva says. “I always listen to the customer. I see what they want, and I put it there.”
For dessert, there’s a selection of puddings made from rice and wheat and flavored with rose water and saffron. As much as we wanted to love the jewel-colored confections, we couldn’t get past the texture, something between baby food and cold grits. The real temptation is the homemade baklava. Lightly flavored with rose water, Genie’s version stuffs the phyllo sheets with pureed walnuts, for a smoother texture than the more popular version with ground pistachios.
If you’re lucky, you might hit Genie’s on a day when there’s a fresh rollette, a traditional French pastry similar to a jelly roll filled with cream. A sweet vestige of the European influence on Persian cuisine, the cake melts in the mouth, a perfect conclusion with a small glass of Shiva’s blend of hot tea.
Only after some astonishingly selfish deliberation did we decide to share the news about Genie’s. After all, the tiny restaurant seats only 20, and it’s not easy to wait for a table, with all the enticing aromas of freshly grilled meats and deeply flavored stews swirling around like the cartoon smoke from Barbara Eden’s bottle. We strongly considered keeping this treasure to ourselves, like Aladdin and his coveted lamp. But the Karimys are opening a second, much larger location in a former Captain D’s building at the corner of Murfreesboro Road and Thompson Lane. Set to open in May, the new store will seat approximately 120. If it offers anything like the personal attention and fresh food at the original store, Genie’s II will be a tasty wish granted.
Genie’s Persian Palace is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 3 p.m. Sunday. Drive-through service and catering are available.
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