This article appears in the May 2011 issue of LouisvilleMagazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.
If you ask Majid Ghavami to describe the menu at his eponymous St. Matthews restaurant, you’ll probably hear a story about Cyrus the Great, who oversaw the height of Persian expansion circa 550 B.C., his realm spanning the globe from Asia to Eastern Europe. During a recent telephone conversation, Ghavami said his restaurant’s “Mediterranean-American” menu “shows how the Persian Empire left its influence all over the Mediterranean,” explaining how dishes such as crostini, pastitsio and crème brûlée go with sabzi and kabobs. It’s a bit harder, however, to reconcile Cyrus with shrimp and grits. While I’m sorry to say that I didn’t get a chance to sample Ghavami’s “American” dishes, I can say that I found his latest restaurant’s Persian-influenced cuisine to be pleasant and intriguing.
Ghavami, for those who may be unfamiliar with his history in local restaurants, came to Louisville from his native Iran as a college student. He started his journey in local kitchens at the formally Italian Casa Grisanti, introduced Louisville to Persian cuisine at Saffron’s, then returned to upscale Italian (with a liberal dash of American steakhouse/cocktail culture) at Volare before beginning his latest venture, Majid’s St. Matthews. The restaurant, in Chenoweth Square, is separated into three main spaces, including a separate bar and lounge area offering live entertainment Wednesday through Saturday nights. Tables are well-spaced through each section, and I enjoyed the ability to have private conversations without feeling too isolated.
A recent lunch visit at one of the lounge’s tables offered a view of both the well-stocked bar and, through a noise-dampening window, patrons in the two connected “fine dining” areas. Ghavami has been known for exceptionally personable service at every one of his establishments, and Majid’s St. Matthews follows suit. All of my multiple servers were pleasant, efficient and willing to discuss details of a dish’s ingredients or history at the merest suggestion of curiosity on my part. (Fun fact: Wine’s been produced in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley for more than 6,000 years.)
At lunch, one of my servers gently corrected my pronunciation of kashke bademjon ($6), a delicious plate of roasted eggplant laced with mint, garlic and the luxurious fragrance of saffron. I didn’t need any help saying “half rack of lamb” ($15), nor did I need much help enjoying it — the tender chops almost fell apart at the touch of a knife, their mild lamb flavor boosted by tart lemon and sumac, a signature flavor of Persian cuisine. I found my vegetarian pastitsio ($9) a bit dull and watery, though, thinned too much by flavorless out-of-season tomato and bland slices of zucchini and yellow squash.
For dinner, I was fortunate enough to book a table on the March night of Persian New Year and opted for a four-course, $60 prix fixe tour through Ghavami’s celebration of the holiday, featuring Persian-inspired dishes from executive chef Charles Reed. Reed, who held several executive positions at large hotels and restaurants before partnering with Ghavami, told me how he “grew up under an Iranian sous-chef” and enjoys “playing with Persian flavors like sumac, fenugreek and dill . . . combining classic techniques and these flavors to paint a modern picture.”
While Ghavami said he planned to add more items to his menu by the time of this review’s publication, you most likely won’t see most of the dishes I enjoyed — although I would hate to wait another year to taste something as good as Reed’s quail soup. A rich consommé of roasted quail and chicken bones, aromatic with rose water and lemon, held tender slices of grilled quail breast along with peppers, celery and carrot. It was a charming and refreshing play on Persian flavors and left me wishing I had another bowl. After an artfully arranged Greek salad, the main course was “Majid’s Duet” — a surf n’ turf of ocean trout with tangerine butter and tender marinated lamb with a rich cheese chutney, accompanied by a hearty chunk of roasted butternut squash and some crisp asparagus. Reed really displayed his playfulness with Persian concepts in the dessert course. A cherry mascarpone baklava went far beyond my expectation of a super-sweet, honey-soaked pastry. More like a Napoleon of phyllo, spun sugar, mascarpone and sweet-and-tart cherries, the baklava was a novel turn on tradition, sweetly paired with a decadent chocolate-dipped pear filled with banana pastry cream.
My New Year’s meal again featured a stream of solicitous servers that peaked with a visit from the restaurant owner himself as he wound through the dining room to visit every table. As I watched him make his rounds, with the same gracious hospitality I’ve witnessed from Grisanti to Saffron’s to Volare, I saw how Ghavami is the one who makes the Mediterranean and St. Matthews work together — and hopefully will continue to do so through several more Persian New Years.