Recently the readers of the Portland Phoenix voted to name Shahnaz Persian Grille the best Middle Eastern restaurant in Portland. (See "The Best," April 21.) As scholars have noted, there is sometimes wisdom in crowds. At the 1906 West England Fat Stock and Poultry Exhibition 800 visitors guessed the weight of a massive prize ox. Their estimates, when averaged, were off by a single pound. About a century later 120 million Americans guessed whether John Kerry or George W. Bush would be a better president for the next four years. Their estimates, when averaged, said Bush. We need a tiebreaker.
So I headed up Forest Avenue to see if the voters were onto something. As if they had anticipated my experiment in democracy, owners Shahnaz Mahager and Dan Eldert have erected a miniature Statue of Liberty in the parking lot. Along the side of the restaurant they have set up an eclectic patio on a green carpet. Inside, a fountain surrounded by leafy plants dominates one corner — the sound of its trickling mingling with the Persian music. Six small tables topped in cracked blue tile gather in one half of the room. Photos of plated Persian dishes line the counter where you order, and photos of family hang on the wall. This is the immigrant spirit, and as usual it charms. It was a saddening pleasure to regard images from the Tehran of the ’80s, even as our freshly paid tax dollars help the folks who brought us “shock and awe” dream up ways to unleash exterminatory air power upon Tehran’s 2006 incarnation.
Shahnaz and Dan, both short and engaging but nonetheless a bit of an odd couple, noted I was a new customer and immediately offered me samples of several dishes. Very quickly I knew the Phoenix voters were onto something. I am not sure if it is one of the charms or the curses of living in Maine that one must eat so much good food off paper — brunch at Sophia’s, the Lobster Shack, even Scales if I remember correctly (and fondly), and now Shahnaz.
Eventually we ordered a platter with all the appetizers. The best was the hummus, mustard yellow, with oil pooled on top, and a texture almost like baba ganoush. The yellow comes from turmeric, which adds a nice sharpness atop the chickpea, sesame, and garlic. The Bademejan, mostly eggplant and tomato, was both smoky and sweet. It is also offered as an entrée but I think it’s probably best as an appetizer. Dolmeh almost never appeals to me, though a particularly slimy grape leaf sometimes gives the palate a pleasing shock. These were not very slimy.
Fessenjan is a simply lovely word, and at Shahnaz it is a bumpy, nutty, pinkish-beige, lovely dish. The sauce, made primarily from crushed walnuts and pomegranate, covers a plate of saffron basmati rice and semi-pulled chicken. It is a model of subtlety. It hits your palate sweet and then develops a nutty flavor that is just slightly sour.