2424 Nolensville Road
There are countless professions I am unsuited or unqualified for; teacher is just one of them. Nonetheless, a couple of years ago, University School of Nashville asked if I would teach a class about food for their adult education program, with the specific focus of the class up to me. Food seemed a pretty broad topic, so I narrowed it down to dining out, though I assumed few people needed help in figuring out how to order a burger, pepperoni pizza or medium-rare steak.
Many people love to try new restaurants, but they don't want to get too far out of their comfort zones. This trepidation helps explain the success of chains like Chili's and the widespread belief that Olive Garden serves Italian food. Needless to say, the cuisines of Ethiopia, Somalia, Thailand, Korea, Turkey, Iran and Vietnam stretch well beyond the comfort zones of even some sophisticated diners. So, what if I could encourage the culinarily curious-but-intimidated while helping support and promote the restaurants I love?
"Ethnic Dining For Dummies" didn't sound very nice, so instead I titled the curriculum "Dining Globally, Eating Locally." In 2004, the class was held at Horn of Africa, a tiny Ethiopian restaurant in a strip center on Murfreesboro Road, which, the class was surprised to learn, also housed a Honduran and a Vietnamese restaurant. The restaurateur, Gizachew Tesfaye, spoke eloquently about his country's cuisine and cultural habits and explained the specific dishes and the proper use of injera bread, the foundation of Ethiopian dining.
Last winter, an Iranian reader emailed me about a new Persian restaurant. As far as I knew, it was one of the only of its kind in town, so I thought it might make a good classroom for this winter's course. As it turned out, Parisa's was close to perfect.
A few weeks prior to the class, I went on a scouting mission, and was glad I did. Parisa's sits in the Woodbine Plaza strip center on Nolensville Road. While the sign announcing Woodbine Plaza is large, the neon lettering for the restaurant is tiny and hardly visible by daylight to the cars whizzing by. More visible eateries across the busy thoroughfare include La Hacienda Taqueria, Dunya Kabob and Istanbul, but signage is the least of the differences between Parisa's and its global neighbors.
Most ethnic restaurants along Nolensville Road, Charlotte Pike and Murfreesboro Road open on a shoestringunframed prints and maps on the walls, Formica-topped tables and mismatched chairs on linoleum floors. Orders are placed at a counter and delivered on cheap plates with paper napkins. The focus is clearly on the food. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
But it makes the elegance of Parisa's quite a surprise. A small fountain in the foyer precedes a couple of steps up into the main room, which might be the secret lair of a Persian prince. Tables on thick, ceramic-tiled floors wear heavy linens and are set with china, silver, stemware and small vases of flowers. Crystal chandeliers are suspended from the high ceiling, which is crossed by steel beams entwined with artificial grapevines. Three semiprivate alcoves in the rear provide lounging room for a dozen diners on rug-covered benches. Brick arches on the walls frame colorful murals by local artist Reza Koshkebaghi, with scenes depicting the Nashville skyline, the Statue of Liberty, Freedom Square in Tehran and Persian folk stories.
All are familiar to owner Ron Sepehr, a native of Tehran who came to the United States in 1975 and settled in Nashville two years later. While attending school at Tennessee Tech University and then at Tennessee State University, he worked in area restaurants. He began investing in real estate and a couple of years ago purchased the ramshackle building occupied by Jennie's Salvage. A complete renovation ensued, and tenants now include a travel agency, a water purification systems dealer and a car accessories store. Well aware of the lack of a Persian fine dining restaurant, Sepehr sought someone to fill the void. When no one stepped up to the plate, he decided to do it himselfgood news for Nashvillians who want to dine globally but eat locally and for Nashville-based Iranians longing for the sights, smells and tastes of home.
The luxuriously appointed room, the scents of grilled meats and perfumes of exotic spices, and the tantalizing flavors of Persian cuisine combine to make dining at Parisa's a rich, multisensory experience (even more so on Thursday nights, when a belly dancer undulates around the dining room).
In his remarks to the USN class, Sepehr explained that at one time Persia (now Iran) encompassed several Middle Eastern countries and provided a trade route through the ancient empire. As a result, the cuisine draws upon multiple influences, with more of an eastern cast than the Mediterranean flavors of Lebanon, Israel and Turkey. While there are several restaurants in Nashville owned by Iranians, Parisa's is most true to classic Persian cuisine, which adds the flavors of pomegranate, dried limes, saffron, mint, walnuts and rosewater to Middle Eastern pantry ingredients like eggplant, tomatoes, yogurt, mint, lamb, chicken and beef.
Typically, Middle Eastern appetizers include a garlic-laden hummus, tabouleh and dolmeh (stuffed grape leaves), and so does Parisa's, but their dolmeh is filled with ground beef and chickpeas rather than with the more common rice. Persian olives are smaller, harder and more bitter than their Greek or French relatives, and the pickles are also smaller and tangier. Immerse yourself in the Persian experience by ordering the Parisa's special, a sampler of six starters, including the hummus and dolmeh. The standouts on the platter are the two eggplant creations, which illustrate Sepehr's tutorial on the Iranian custom of allowing the "nature" of foods to reveal themselves. Kashk'o'bademjon is pureed and sautéed eggplant, topped with slivers of caramelized onion, cream of whey (similar to sour cream) and fresh mint. When preparing mirza ghasemi, the cook skewers a whole eggplant, places it over a fire until it is black and infused with smoke, then skins, purees and mixes it with garlic and tomato. We spread both dips on triangles of warm pita bread, which is also delivered to the table with butter, hunks of creamy feta cheese and a tangle of fresh herbs. The wine list is short but satisfactory.
Kabobs dominate the menu. Sepehr explained that it would be unusual to find a restaurant in Iran that did not serve kabobs, but people very rarely cook them at home. Marinated cuts of beef, poultry, lamb, fish, shrimp or vegetables threaded onto skewers and grilled over an open flame are served beside a large mound of the signature (and incomparable) basmati rice. At Parisa's, the nutty white rice is topped with a ribbon of marigoldcolored, saffron-infused rice. All of the kabobs we sampled were flavorful and tender. Indecisive diners can try the combination plates of shrimp and salmon, chicken and lamb, chicken and shrimp, or tenderloin and kubideh, a Persian favorite made by molding seasoned ground sirloin and minced onion around a skewer, then grilling. Sepehr compares it to a top-grade American hamburger.
Persian cuisine differs most notably from other Middle Eastern cuisine in a stew-like dish called khoresht, which typically combines some type of meat with a fruit. Sepehr says a pot of khoresht can be found on the stove in most home kitchens. There are four on the menu at Parisa's, and the two we sampled won raves. The earthy nature of the gheymehbeef with split peas simmered in a tomato brothwas the ying to the citrus yang of sun-dried lime. Fessenjoon is dark chicken braised in a thick, gravy-like sauce made of crushed walnuts and pomegranate paste, which produces an intense and delicious sweet-sour ambrosia.
Parisa's offers only two desserts, rosewater-flavored ice cream, which had been in the freezer a tad too long, and baklava, notably less sweet than found elsewhere in town.
Because of its upscale accoutrements, Parisa's is more expensive than other ethnic restaurants in Nashville, but having another option to dine globally and eat locally, particularly one as unique and special as this jewel, is priceless.