Cooking by Numbers

New American Grill Food: A Lowbrow Concept Sparks Predictable Results

There is a hint of something real and unusual at the Downtowner, but I almost hesitate to mention it, because maybe you'll think it's more prominent than it is. But here goes anyway: The fries are dusted with cumin. There is one section of the menu, entitled "Persian Fire Roasted Meats," where you can get lemon-, olive oil-, and herb-marinated chunks of critter roasted on skewers, but served off-skewer--beef tenderloin ($14.95); game hen ($13.95); chicken ($12.95); and shrimp ($18.95)--on a bed of basmati rice with grilled vegetables. There's also a distinctly Persian salad, the "chopped tomato, cucumber, red onion, cilantro, and mint salad" ($6.50), which, Ansari told me when pressed, was a traditional dish called a "Shirazi" salad, named after an Iranian city where mint grows abundantly. Then he told me it was the same place where the shiraz grape comes from. (Also called syrah, this grape has seen its geographical origins hotly debated. Some say it comes from ancient Persia, others say it hails from Sicily, and most believe it's indigenous to the Rhône.)

The next time I went, I really concentrated on the bread, which tastes sort of like a cross between a fresh flour tortilla and pita. I tried the Shirazi salad, added a bottle of 1999 Wynn's Shiraz from Australia (soft and chocolatey with just enough acid to keep it from being thoroughly flabby) and followed it with the Persian fire-roasted beef tenderloin. Somehow this meal ended up still seeming like one that could be had at Sidney's--or anywhere. I wished for seasoning of the plain rice, and the meat was nothing more than chewy and dry. The lemony treatment I liked on the game hen killed the filet mignon, which is a cut that responds to coddling, not challenging. I wished it had been lamb. I think cumin on fries makes them taste funny, not good.

So, aside from the good Shirazi salad, which isn't even called that, my adventure in trying to put together a Persian meal was basically a failed experiment. It just didn't hold together in any way that made it seem anything more than "new American grill food" with, like, a three percent Persian shadow of strangeness. Which for me is a shame because I've had at least one lovely Persian meal at downtown Minneapolis's Atlas Grill, the other restaurant owned by Moe Sharif, the force behind the Downtowner. Now, Atlas started as an expense-account restaurant in the Pillsbury Center selling lots of steaks, fish fillets, and caesar salads. And it's basically still that, except eventually Persian specials were added, customers loved them, and the section grew. And that's how Minneapolis got some good Persian food.

Craig Lassig

I wouldn't be surprised if the same thing happened here, and then St. Paul got some. After all, there's more than one way to skin a cat.

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