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Dining Out

Authentic Persian cuisine in Watertown

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January 27, 2008

Molana

5 Spring St., Watertown
617-923-2554
molanarestaurant.com
Hours: Monday-Thursday, noon-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, noon-1 a.m.; Sunday, noon-10 p.m.
Reservations accepted
Accessible to the handicapped
Major credit cards

Mohsen Tehrani stood in front of the open fire grill at Molana holding a string of tasbih prayer beads made of turquoise.

"When I want to pray I use them, and when I'm nervous or worried, they help me to relax," said Tehrani, the Watertown restaurant's assistant manager.

It turns out that Molana is a neighborhood hot spot for authentic Persian fare. After 9:30 p.m. on a recent Friday, Tehrani, a native of Iran, was greeting diners who continued to trickle in. Along the far wall of exposed brick, an extended family of 17 celebrated a birthday. Grandparents held toddlers speaking a combination of English and Armenian. Upstairs, which has seating for 65, Middle Eastern music filled the room for a party celebrating a first wedding anniversary.

The building at 5 Spring St. seems as if it holds two separate restaurants that share the same name and menu. Upstairs was recently renovated with new hardwood floors and a bar with a granite counter. Tea lights sat on crisp white tablecloths, and walls of burnt sienna abutted exposed brick, giving the room an air of sophistication.

Downstairs was a bit bereft of ambiance, and resembled a pizzeria with its large glass storefront and open kitchen. Molana obtained a liquor license this month, and dimmed the once-harsh fluorescent lights on the lower level and added candles. The room seats 48.

We started with a few appetizers. The first was kashk bademjan ($7), a mixture of sautéed eggplant, cooked onion, mint, and Molana's secret yogurt-based dressing, which was delicious scooped up with fresh pita bread.

Our server, Tasha - who seemed to know most of the customers by name, as if they had arrived for a party in her home - suggested a number of dishes that combined exotic spices with meat, fruit, and nuts. Throughout the evening, she doted on everyone in the restaurant, filling water glasses and replenishing baskets of pita.

Next came masto-o-khiar ($5), a rich yogurt with chopped cucumber and dry mint. The dolmeh moe ($7) - stuffed grape leaves - was standard, filled with cooked rice, parsley, spring onions, leek, and mint.

Last was the hummus tahini ($5); while very good and fresh, it was nothing unusual.

The next course included ash reshteh soup ($5). Both filling and delicious, the chicken-broth base was infused with cilantro and boasted vermicelli, spinach, red kidney beans, split peas, parsley, green onions, and a garnish of yogurt-based kashk, an essential part of many Middle Eastern dishes. The barley soup was good ($5), but was eclipsed by the ash reshteh.

Our main courses arrived and the servings were enormous. The boneless lamb kabob ($17) had been marinated and cooked over the open fire. It was served with basmati rice sprinkled with saffron, which gave it an orange glow. The meat was juicy and tender with just the right amount of char.

Next was shirin polo ($16), skewered chicken breasts, also cooked over the open fire, served beside rice mixed with sweet orange peel, almonds, and rosewater. The last main course was adas polo with chicken ($16), which combined basmati rice with lentils and raisins.

Husband and wife Edith and Hadi Eghbali, who live in Watertown, purchased Molana in 2001. The restaurant was named by its original owner in honor of Molana Jalaleddin Rumi, a Persian poet from the 13th century. Hadi once co-owned a restaurant in Iran and cooks many of the dishes.

Favorites include the kabob-e-barg ($12), a marinated beef tenderloin, and mizra gasemi ($12), a mixture of sautéed eggplant, onion, tomato, garlic, and egg, served on either rice or flatbread.

We ended our evening with a piece of baklava (a bit too dry) and Persian ice cream ($5) made with saffron and rosewater. It smelled lovely, but frankly, I think it must be an acquired taste.

SUSAN CHAITYN LEBOVITS

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