Beacon Hill SecretBy Veena Thomas
Dining patrons often overlook Lala Rokh, tucked away in elegant Beacon Hill, in favor of splashier (and more expensive) restaurants elsewhere in Boston. It’s hard to see why. Owned by a brother and sister, Lala Rokh specializes in traditional Persian cuisine. In terms of the number of “wow” dishes on the menu, it exceeds several other well-known restaurants in Boston. Combine this with reasonable prices, intimate ambiance, and a favorable review by the New York Times to make Lala Rokh one of Boston’s best kept dining secrets.
It is easy to miss Lala Rokh, set in the basement of a nondescript building on Mt. Vernon Street, a short walk from the Charles/MGH T stop. Yet this adds to the intrigue. Once inside, diners find themselves transported to somewhere quite detached from the rest of the world.
Customers eat in small rooms that comprise the main dining area. This unique setup allows Lala Rokh to achieve an peaceful, intimate atmosphere uncommon in a restaurant of its size. The tables are spaced far enough apart to afford privacy to each table, and while eavesdropping on the couple a few tables away is possible, it’s difficult.
The waitstaff prove extremely knowledgeable and willing to help diners new to Persian cuisine navigate the menu. A Persian meal is a sophisticated balance of both “hot” and “cold” flavors, which refers to more than the temperature of the dish. A “cold” flavor, like salad greens, should be countered with a “hot” flavor, like lamb, honey, or sugar. The waiters want to ensure that you have the proper balance in your meal, and if you order something which upsets this balance, they will politely suggest that you order something else.
We started with the kashk-e bademjan, eggplant purÉe with minced beef and mint oil, topped with a sprinkling of caramelized onions and drizzled with goat’s milk yogurt. Somehow this blend of disparate flavors works amazingly well. Every flavor has been chosen exceedingly carefully, making a dish that is at once complex and delicious. The layers of ingredients help facilitate the experience -- each bite is different. We scooped up the kashk-e bademjan with the assortment of breads, along with a tangy chickpea purÉe served in place of butter.
Lala Rokh offers several different types of main dishes, ranging from khoresht, slow-cooked stews, to pollos, meat dishes served with spiced rice. One variety of khoresht, the ghormeh sabzi, consisted of stewed lamb served with tasty basmati rice. While the lamb was very flavorful and tender, it was slightly overpowered by the greens in the stew. The pollo of choice was morgh, pieces of saffron-flavored chicken. The light tomato-based sauce complemented rather than dominated the dish, and allowed the subtle buttery flavor of the chicken to shine through. The morgh was accompanied by a fragrant basmati rice flavored with cumin and cinnamon.
The barberries scattered atop the rice provided a contrasting tartness to the rest of the dish.
Our waiter described Mazze, small side dishes, and torshi, fruit and vegetable-based relishes in vinegar. These are acids and bases which are meant to complement your meal. He advised us to order the mast khiar, a mixture of yogurt, cucumbers, and herbs, with the ghormeh sabzi. Indeed, it nicely cooled the palate after eating the lamb dish. While the waiter recommended the sir, a relish made with garlic cloves aged in the sun for a year, to chop up and eat with the morgh, I decided to order the anbeh, a thick mango and tamarind sauce instead for my torshi. The anbeh tasted very strongly of white vinegar, so much that I could scarcely taste the mango or tamarind.
The portions are more generous than those typically found in refined restaurants. After the main course, we ordered bastani for desert, a wise decision. This saffron ice cream topped with crushed pistachios provided the perfect finale to the meal. The pistachios nicely complement the delicate, sophisticated flavor of the saffron, and small pieces of frozen cream in the ice cream provide surprisingly effective texture.
Dinner for two without drinks came to about $60 including tax and tip, a good deal for a dining experience of this caliber. The amount of care taken to select and balance every flavor is impressive, making Lala Rokh a truly unique eating experience. The kashk-e bademjan and bastani alone make it worth the trip.