Twenty years ago, brother and sister Babak Bina and Azita Bina-Seibel opened Lala Rokh. The restaurant celebrated Persian flavors, native to their homeland of Iran but new to Beacon Hill.
The cozy warren of connected rooms was an unlikely place to find dishes perfumed with rose petals and cumin seed. It was previously Another Season (opened in 1982), and before that Au Beauchamp (1940), both inspired by traditional French fare. Before that it was the trendsetting Boston Bean (1920). (How many of these you have heard of determines the answer to the Internet quiz “How much of a Brahmin are you?”) Win the hearts of Beacon Hill and be rewarded with loyalty that spans decades.
Today, pomegranate and mint, sumac and saffron, feta and strained yogurt taste perfectly current, fresh but not far-out. These ingredients appear in our home kitchens and in restaurants, where chefs spin them into dishes that play with tradition. When Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookbook “Plenty” came out, there was a run on barberries in local specialty shops. Sarma, chef Cassie Piuma’s Somerville salute to Mediterranean small plates, was one of the most talked-about restaurant openings in recent memory. And small plates, a dining trend so ubiquitous it is now simply the way we eat, can themselves be traced back to mezze — or “mazze,” the Persian spelling that appears on Lala Rokh’s newly revised menu. Revisiting this rich culinary tradition and culture provides welcome counterbalance to the political talk of Iran so much in the air.
The time was ripe, then, to refresh the food, renovate the restaurant, and remind diners that Lala Rokh is still tucked away on its semi-vertical side street. The siblings’ BiNA Family Hospitality group also runs such of-the-moment restaurants as JM Curley and Merrill & Co., with partner Andy Cartin. They were perfectly poised to modernize their flagship.
But they couldn’t do it. Not really. Lala Rokh has changed. It has fresh white paint, a new wraparound bar, and sleek tables and leather-lined banquettes. The walls showcase the paintings and photographs of contemporary Iranian artists. The regional focus of the menu has expanded from their parents’ native region of Azerbaijan to most of Iran. But the feeling of the place remains the same. Lala Rokh began as a tribute to a mother’s cooking, a manifestation of family bonds and love of country and culture. These aren’t things to be modernized. These are things to be cherished.
And so the cooking — overseen by executive chef Bina-Seibel — still tastes traditional, more old-school than new.
This is a given for the section of the menu titled “Classic Lala Rokh.” Here we find the likes of kubideh kebabs, juicy cylinders of ground beef laced with spices, bites of raw onion providing crunch and bursts of flavor, over rice. It’s pure comfort food.
These dishes can be elegant too. Fesenjan, the traditional pomegranate-walnut stew, is made with duck leg. The rich sauce — sweet, tangy, luxurious — is well matched with the rich meat. It’s dinner-party fare. Some of Lala Rokh’s finest preparations involve mixtures of fruit and nuts: a trout stuffed with almonds, prunes, and cranberries, for instance, the meat a fresh and mild foil for the tart and savory filling. Such dishes run the risk of being too sweet, but here they are balanced.
Adass polow combines beef medallions with lentils, caramelized onions, currants, dates, and basmati rice. It hums with deep, heady flavors, but the beef is overcooked and dry. Morgh polow — rice with saffron chicken, tomato sauce, and spices — suffers the same problem.
The surprise is how classic the mazze taste. These small plates are here for sharing at the table, but also for luring people to the new bar, and keeping them there for multiple Lala-tinis and Persian mojitos. It’s the part of the menu where cross-pollination and innovation would be most natural. We do find grilled lemon-saffron chicken wings and dips such as hummus, smoked eggplant, and olive tapenade with pomegranate, all of which double effortlessly as bar snacks. But there is also a selection of domestic and imported caviar, plus a section titled “lamb innards.” Grilled liver is delicious with a squeeze of lime. I’ll be back for brain fritters and slow-cooked tongue with mushroom sauce. I’m not sure how many will say the same. Lala Rokh might have pandered to mainstream tastes here. Instead, it stays true to its culinary vision.
Kashk-e bademjan is a rich, creamy mixture of roasted eggplant and caramelized onion, with sour cream providing tangy contrast. But dolmeh, zucchini stuffed with ground meat, are crunchy and undercooked. Simply grilled meats are a strong suit, from lamb chops (shish kebab) to quail (belderchin). The latter is marinated in acidic verjuice and saffron, the tiny bird juicy and infused with smoky flavor. It’s served over bulgur embedded with pomegranate seeds that tastes, jarringly, as if it’s been tossed with Italian dressing.
Seared scallops served over shaved fennel with saffron-citrus vinaigrette would be at home in any bistro, fresh and elegant. A kale salad with beets, walnuts, and feta would, too, although it needs more walnut dressing to bind it together, along with something bright — acid, garlic — to boost the flavor. But that isn’t the path the food takes. Dishes are more often warm, balanced, and comforting than bursting with big, contrasting flavors. The chutneys (torshi) on the menu — from mango and tamarind to garlic aged in vinegar — can help, but only if you order them.
The flavor profile suits Lala Rokh’s long-simmered dishes. Abgusht is a braise of tender lamb shank with potatoes, peppers, chickpeas, and more, in thick, rich gravy. Another lamb dish, ghormeh sabzi, is a stew of lamb and beans animated by dried lime, tart and complex. Citrus enlivens many of Lala Rokh’s best dishes, such as a whole roasted sea bass fragrant with garlic and bitter orange. Served with tahcheen, crisped saffron-yogurt rice, it is gorgeously simple.
Baqhlava, fragrant with almonds and cardamom, is a natural ending to a meal. Skip the assortment of Persian cookies, so hard they are inedible. But don’t miss the frozen desserts. Bastani is saffron ice cream dusted with pistachios, subtle and delicious but unfortunately shot through with bits of ice on one visit. Faludeh, rosewater and lime sorbet, is mixed with chewy, slender rice vermicelli and sour cherries. It’s tart and sweet and floral and refreshing, and not like any other dessert you’ve had recently.
BiNA Family Hospitality is also behind the wine-driven Bin 26 Enoteca, and some of that restaurant’s proprietary blends make it onto the list here. The bulk of the selections are from Italy, France, and the United States, with one bottle from Lebanon hiding in the mix. The glass list could be more interesting, but it hardly matters what red you’re drinking when it’s served so warm. Beers such as Efes, a Turkish Pilsner, and Allagash White, with its spice-and-citrus flavor profile, pair well with the food. And those Lala-tinis — vodka with sour cherry — aren’t bad at all, more tart than sweet.
At a table rather than the bar, they can be hard to come by. Service is occasionally distracted, with cocktails and dishes that fail to materialize. It is professional, however; on one occasion, our server has the forgotten cocktails made again and takes them off the bill. A staffer comes by to light a candle on each table, announcing himself as he rounds the corners: blind spots. The restaurant’s surfaces are new, but it’s still an old, quirky space, the lines where the walls meet the ceilings charmingly crooked. History peeks out from the edges. Renovations revealed a mural of a coat checker wearing an Au Beauchamp hat.
Babak Bina points it out one evening as we depart. The proprietors’ warmth is the animating force of Lala Rokh, their willingness to walk guests through the restaurant or the food on the table. They’ve been refining this hospitality for 20 years, and it needs no update.