I’m feeling just a tad guilty because I’ve spent the last few days thinking about chef Hamid Salimian’s amazing Persian-inspired tasting menu that he rolled out for us the other evening. Guilty, because the timeline for this menu is short. It runs only until March 29th, when it will be retired for another year. I can’t imagine why it wouldn’t come back for Nowruz 2014.
Tasting menus have been around Vancouver for a while. We can thank Chef Rob Feenie for rolling out the more celebrated, earlier versions at lumière; and bringing a dining style to Vancouver that continues to enjoy a strong following. Since Feenie got things started, it seems everyone has had a tasting menu of some kind or other, some good, some not so much.
I like going to a restaurant and letting them do all the work for you. It’s not that I can’t abide choosing. But I love the idea of putting yourself in someone else’s knowing hands—especially when it comes to pairing food and wine. In fact, some of the best meals I can recall over the last 20 kilos have occurred when the only question asked when we sat down was “Any allergies?” or “red or white.”
However, this line-up from chef Salimian is truly unique and among the best I’ve ever tasted. The chef in this case has a real challenge on his hands, of introducing diners—most of whom are entirely unfamiliar with his native cuisine—to the delights and intricacies, not to mention the language, of Iranian / Persian foods. Diva’s menu (it comes in six or eight courses) is necessarily extensive, as he endeavours to encompass contrasting regions, traditions and dining styles, at the same time as providing a remarkable parade of tastes and (not to be overlooked) textures. Hopefully, elements will continue to run year round.
I first met Hamid when he was originally at Diva, as a sous-chef under Michael Noble, when he won the now defunct Fetzer Great Beginnings Appetizer Challenge. In those days to grab top spot was no mean feat, as the small plates challenge was hotly contested, sometimes with upwards of 30 restos in the running. I wrote a piece on him then and remember asking what preparation they’d done at Diva. He told me he made the dish several nights and, after service, the entire team tried it with the wine and critiqued it—until it was right.
It’s been truly satisfying to follow his progress since then. And I know I’m not alone when I suggest that you couldn’t meet a nicer guy to cook for you. It goes without saying that any great chef must have a love for food. But Hamid’s passion is beyond that: It’s profoundly personal and immensely infectious, as he has a story to tell—and this, in particular, is what sets the Persian-inspired menu apart.
Plus, there’s a truly artistic bent to these creations that’s hard to pin down. Lots of plates look pretty. But these have a refined, sophisticated edge that really makes you think about not only what you’re tasting but where it came from, in geographic, cultural and historical terms. In a way, it’s also very Canadian, as these dishes draw on the West Coast style that’s defined Diva.
Although I’m sure people do order tasting menus without wines, the pairings chosen by sommelier manager Corey Bauldry (who honed his skills at West), take these tastes to the next level—and also add up to tremendous value. Ask Bauldry if it was challenging to match some of these ingredients (where the plates are often multi-dimensional) and he’ll candidly tell you “yes, indeed”—but that it was always fun to work at.
As promised, I’m not going to give you a plate by plate account. But below are some highlights. Bottom line? Get in there by March 29th, if you can. Or, failing that, check out Diva’s upcoming spring tasting menu—and make a note in your calendar now for next year’s Nowruz menu.
Adding to the value of these menus is that fact that both start with “Diva snacks”—artfully constructed small tastes that offer a hint of what’s to come—and of the meticulous thought process that drives Hamid Salimian, who likes nothing more to take a theme or tradition and blow it into a modern style.
Indicative is the chicken “kebab” (top of page), which is actually grilled marinated chicken skin. Sounds boring? It’s not! It arrives (on a rock), deliciously crunchy—and makes me wonder why I ever started skinning my chickens before roasting them. Topped with garlic yoghurt and chives, it turns out to be a good match for the Blue Mountain Brut, which also cuts the richness of the small lamb cerveau (yes, that’s brain) taste—and even survives the complex layers of romaine granita.
Without question, one of the more emblematic dishes is koofteh (essentially a type of meat-ball, that again varies considerably by region). Tender and very flavourful pork jowl contrasts with the rougher texture of the chick pea dumpling, with ground pork shoulder, served in a rich, velvet-smooth saffron broth and topped with crispy flank strands. The wine—Chateau Ste. Michelle Columbia Valley Riesling 2011 (BCLS $16.99)—sports a fruit-forward style with lemon lime notes, a touch of mineral, and a nice streak of acidity. It’s the perfect foil for the seductive richness of this dish yet also picks up on its subtleties.
It should come as no surprise that one absolute highlight that lingers is Salimian’s “halva”, which is one of the boldest variations I’ve ever encountered. Just to nudge things over the top, the “halva (whose key ingredients include rose water and saffron) is crumbled under a thin layer of foie gras that also covers preserved figs, sultanas and salted almonds. It’s all impossibly delicious, and Bauldry wraps it up with (what else?) but Chateau D’Armajan des Ormes Sauternes 2007 that mirrors the flavours perfectly—and has the textural heft. Extraordinary!
I thought this was such an inspired dish, as it combines all the elements of wrapping the fundamentals and traditionalism of the cuisine with just one of the outside influences that’s helped shaped the modern style. Oh, and it tastes amazing!
As promised, I’m not going to make this too much (more) of a list but I’d be remiss not to mention the Ash-reshteh, which is a hallmark dish, a national vegetable stew that varies much in the way that, say, bouillabaisse does. Hamid’s offering is again quite remarkable.
We were also wowed by the the vibrant and ingeniously mimicked meyer lemon mousse, which looked so realistic we wondered how we would “deal’ with the lemon rind. The mousse was light but the flavour intense—but well handled by De Bortoli Noble One Botrytis Semillon 2009. This under-appreciated drop from one of Australia’s legendary producers is a fine pinch hitter for more expensive icewine. Its honeyed, citrus and stonefruit flavours are a perfect match. (BCLS $34.99)
As I said, if you have a chance, make a point of trying these Persian-inspired plates before they vanish for another year.
In summary, these Diva at the Met tasting menus add up to superb value—and are utterly unique compared to any other on offer.