The strength of Detroit’s restaurant scene has always been top-rate ethnic places. By and large, they’re better and more interesting than many of the long-anointed flagships of Motor City dining.
Overall, the food there is just plain brighter, more alive, self-confident, and vibrant. Certainly, that’s the case with this month’s choice. Pars, a very good Iranian restaurant on Orchard Lake Road in Farmington Hills, is a warm, sophisticated, and impressively large place with great food and excellent service.
The quality gap between Anglo–, Franco–, Italian-based restaurants and those offering Middle Eastern and Asian fare was one of the first things I noticed when I arrived in Detroit in the early 1980s. Today, ethnic still rocks.
I was surprised back then how dated and lackluster many mainstream restaurants were — not in appearance but in their menus and cooking, stuck in the 1940s or 1950s, with clubby recipes and styling.
Which explains why the city awakened from a food slumber and went slightly nuts in the early 1980s, when Jimmy Schmidt took over the London Chop House and offered New American cuisine.
The first time I ate at an ethnic restaurant in Detroit, I realized there was actually a throbbing pulse here. My new boss took me to a rather exotic Arabic restaurant near Grand Circus Park.
I was already familiar with Arabic food and loved it, having lived 20 years in Paris. Soon, I discovered Dearborn’s Warren Avenue corridor, just forming as an ethnic enclave in the 1980s. There were wonderful Arabic bakeries and restaurants, many run by French-speaking Lebanese.
There was also Hamtramck with its Polish restaurants, and over in southwest Detroit, Mexican Village was established and expanding.
And so it went, with other smaller ethnic enclaves in deeper suburbs, where two or three restaurants clustered around small immigrant colonies: Pakistani, Indian, and Vietnamese.
But one culture that we haven’t heard from much around Detroit has been Iranian, or Persian, as many prefer to call themselves. It is easy to lump Persian food into the catchall category of Arabic, but they are distinct in culture and language. Persian and Arabic share several key basic ingredients, including the grape leaf, eggplant, yogurt, lamb, and some grains. Where they differ is in how they inter-combine them — and in the different spices used.
“We have the feeling that people here don’t know much about this food. That’s where our mission began,” says Pars co-owner and manager Sam Rajaee. “Trying to do food you would have in someone’s home in Iran.”
The Iranians use saffron much more widely, and cook their basic rice in at least a half dozen methods, with different flavorings.
One, for example is the continuous cooking of rice slowly, and letting it sit until it forms a crust on the bottom of the pan. When served, the rich golden crusty part, now the consistency of a giant cookie, is separated. That is called tahdig. It is broken into pieces and passed around as a snack, or offered with the rest of the meal, as we would with bread.
Pars doesn’t serve tahdig, but when I asked if they had any, the waiter broke into a smile and said, “Oh, let me check and see if there is any. It depends on where the rice is in the cooking now, you know.” He returned with a bigger smile and plateful of golden, crunchy tahdig that made the rounds several times.
“It’s so delicious, people sometimes crumble it to put on top of split pea soup and other things,” Rajaee says. “As a child, we would look to see who was our mother’s favorite by who gets the tahdig.”
Pars takes its name from the old region in Iran that became the center of the Persian Empire, the rock-bed for 2,000 years of its culture, literature, art, and architecture.
The first thing you notice about the space is a soft luxury that casts it quite a few steps higher on the scale of décor than most of its counterparts. It is an elegant, expansive space accented by marbled columns, gold framed paintings, large Persian carpets, and bright allegoric murals of Persian fables and history. They set off the pleasing fawn-colored décor and a blend of high-backed banquettes and tables.
Furnishings are of a modern neo-Empire style, all of which add up to a sense of hushed and restrained wealth. A long mirrored full-service bar with a blue under-light runs the length of one wall.
The food is every bit a match of the surroundings. The menu has been done in a traditional setup of appetizers, salads, and soups, but departs at the main courses to list stewed dishes, gourmet kebab, specialty rice plates, seafood, and vegetarian offerings.
Most of the appetizer selections are quite similar to those on Arabic menus: hummus and vegetables or a plain hummus plate, but served with deep-flavored oven rolls and a creamy yogurt with sun-dried shallots and dill called Maust-O-Moosir. We tried a cucumber and yogurt salad called Maust-O-Khiar, basically much like both Greek and Arabic versions, but with the addition of chopped fresh mint.
We noticed other differences in the cousin of baba ghanoush, called Kashk-O-Bademjoon, made with a stewed eggplant and olive oil base, but with the addition of sautéed onion, garlic, and mint, and finished with whey and caramelized onion.
The main courses offered a specialty lamb shank served with saffron rice. The shank had been slow-cooked for hours in a tomato base with carrots and served with a deep, rich spicy sauce; it literally fell off the bone at the table.
Where the food becomes distinctly Iranian is the various stewed dishes: cubes of beef with yellow split peas, tomato, and sun-dried lime. Dried lime makes an appearance in several places in Iranian food and on the menu.
For those who are spicy food inhibited, there is a bit of a safe haven at Pars. The plain old grilled lamb chops will work, but they are marinated before broiling. Similarly, there are the tenderloin beef strips and some grilled, lightly spiced chicken.
A meal at Pars is not complete without the rich honeyed baklava, but more importantly the sensational vanilla ice cream, made in-house with rose water and whole pistachio nuts — possibly the single best thing on the menu.
Pars is a great adventure, something different that takes you away from the humdrum of the expected.
I wish we had a few more restaurants like Pars around town. It’s so refreshing.
30005 Orchard Lake Rd., Farmington Hills; 248-851-8200.
Cook is Hour Detroit’s chief restaurant critic. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org