Persian Cottage, 2 Benson Street, Middlesbrough TS5 6JQ (01642 829 090). Starters £3-£4; mains £7-£13; desserts £3; unlicensed
There are a few people, some of whom may have a little too much time on their hands, who have claimed on social media that they can track my reviewing around the country against my various gigs and shows. Specifically, they have said, you need only compare the restaurants I write about to the locations for episodes of Radio 4’s Kitchen Cabinet, the intoxicatingly marvellous, award-winning, culturally significant, cheese and bacon-perving, deep fat fryer-promoting food panel show I chair for the BBC. I like to imagine them with maps and different coloured pins, punching the air as the holes for those pins coincide.
Innocent as charged. It makes complete sense for me to do this. We do not choose all the locations for Kitchen Cabinet episodes because they have obvious food connections and stories, although some obviously do. Because we produce 26 episodes a year, we go everywhere, from the tip of Cornwall to the Highlands. Often, we go to places that don’t get their fair share of attention and may not seem immediately to be a beacon for the belly-led. But we work on the basis that if we look closely enough, we will always find a great food-related story that needs to be told.
I apply a similar policy to the restaurants I visit. I don’t always have to go somewhere based on the restaurant I’ve chosen. Sometimes it’s the other way around: I go to a restaurant because of where I happen to be at the time. I won’t lie. When I started doing this job 20 years ago, that would likely have ended up with me in a chain pub eating a steak from a cow that died of a bacterial infection. But times have changed. With research I can usually find the good stuff. I regard it as part of my job. It’s why – cue the trumpets – I’m one of the few national critics in recent years to have reviewed from Doncaster or Llandudno or Blackpool. I say few; I’m certain I can claim “only”. Go me.
It’s a tawdry sort of a boast. Us national newspaper journalists can fairly be accused of not getting off the beaten track often enough. We shouldn’t expect plaudits when we do. But it does explain the happy choice this week, of the polished gem that is Persian Cottage in Middlesbrough. It’s a brightly lit, wood-floored space just beyond the town centre, where the ornate tablecloths come plastic-covered for a quick wipe down.
That evening we had recorded a fine show. We had conducted a detailed interrogation of the breaded chicken-and-cheese drunk-food wonder that is the parmo, to the dismay of some locals who didn’t want the city known only for that, and the utter delight of others. Now we needed dinner. I took a punt based on a long-held but quietly kept belief: you will rarely eat badly in a Middle Eastern grill house. Even the mediocre ones are good. Which means that the good ones, like Persian Cottage, are cracking.
The basic proposition – meats grilled over charcoal, rugged dips and salads – hides huge regional variations. At Persian Cottage that regional variation starts with the rice. I try to avoid hyperbole, but sod it: Persian rice is the best way with rice. It is the rice of your dreams, if your dreams involve rice, which sometimes they should do. It is light and fluffy and every grain is separate so that even with the traditional application of a little butter – foil wrapped pats are provided here for a bit of self-mixing – it never turns into some bolus of carbs. It is a wonder of the culinary world.
I wanted to know how it’s done, so I turned to the great Sabrina Ghayour and her book Persiana. Apparently, it’s a two-stage process. First the rice must be parboiled and rinsed to shift the starch. Then it must be steamed. It sounds like a faff, but it’s a worthwhile faff. Here we have it both with the woozy aromatics of saffron, and “green” with handfuls of fresh herbs.
It accompanies a groaning mixed grill of kebabs, still smoking lightly from the charcoal. Chunks of lamb come fiercely flamed until dark and singed. There are cuts of still-soft chicken stained yellow by its marinade. There are undulating planks of spiced minced lamb, ready to leak their juices into the rice. We have a plate of lamb chops, lined up in serried ranks, the fat crisped to within an inch of decency. Do not trust anyone who attempts to eat these with anything but their hands. Bone-in lamb chops are food with a handle.
We have a whole grilled chicken, its skin blistered from the heat. From a list of stews, we have fesenjan, a night-dark dish of chicken braised in a rugged sweet-and-sour sauce of blitzed walnuts and pomegranate paste. Aubergine comes in two different ways. There’s the deep green of kashk e bademjan, for which it’s fried until falling apart then mashed with walnuts, mint and whey, so that it’s vibrating with acidity and vigour. By contrast, in mirza ghasemi, the aubergine is grilled, then beaten with garlic, tomato and crushed pieces of boiled egg, and a motherload of fried onions. It’s altogether deeper and darker. Naturally we have hummus, the lightest of takes courtesy of a ballast of tahini, and a classic fattoush of cracked wheat and flatleaf parsley and lemon. We scoop it all up with warm pieces of flat bread fresh from the oven and conclude we’re being good to ourselves.
We hope for pastries at the end but instead get a chocolate gateau and pomegranate cheesecake, both of which seem more box- rather than kitchen-fresh. They’ll do. They do not serve alcohol, but have no objection to you drinking. There are a couple of off-licences within a few minutes’ walk and Persian Cottage will supply wine glasses, corkscrews and bottle openers.
As a result, the bill for eight of us stays low. Our most expensive order is the mixed grill at £25, but it’s built to feed two. The aubergine dishes are £4 each; the whole chicken, a tenner. None of this will come as a surprise to the people of Middlesbrough. A year ago, Persian Cottage topped the rankings of a restaurant review site which I won’t name because it will only encourage them. The local paper took this as its cue to publish the whole menu. It read like found poetry. That, people, is the definition of service journalism.
A trip to Green Lanes, the heart of London’s Turkish community, leads to more serious flame-grilled meat action at the landmark that is Gökyüzü. Take a friend and try the Full Platter: a heap of rice and bulgur wheat layered with lamb and chicken shish, adana kebab, lamb ribs, chicken wings and both chicken and lamb doner. Then ask to take what you haven’t finished, home.
Treat this with as much seriousness as you wish: Tesco’s second annual report on our festive eating habits reveals the shocking news that Christmas pudding has seen a 20% surge in popularity from last year. A whacking 48% of the population say they will now be eating it on Christmas Day, up from 40% last year. The pudding love is not evenly spread, with Bristol being the epicentre. Over 60% of the city’s population says they’ll be having one this year.
Disturbing news: according to a recent survey by software company Fourth, one in six employees in the hospitality industry say they have received no regular training on issues around allergens in foods. 73% of diners said they had not been asked about any allergies during their most recent trip to a restaurant.
Email Jay at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1
Source: Thanks https://www.theguardian.com/food/2019/dec/22/jay-rayner-persian-cottage-middlesbrough-rice-kebab-grill-lamb-charcoal-aubergine-hummus