Ariana, princess of Persia

Ariana is an unassuming restaurant in a location which is both splendid and awful. The back, including a covered dining area with warm friendly lights and a chance to enjoy the summer breezes, abuts Mile End Park and is therefore surrounded by healthy, relaxing green space which is maintained in a state of carefully managed wildness and features joggers, strolling families, young guys playing cricket and people of that ilk. The front end lacks this good fortune and opens onto Burdett Rd, which is a bit of a scumhole. Well, not your really awful kind of scumhole, obviously. But rather rough around the edges – it’s a major thoroughfare linking the whole east of the city with Limehouse and the Docklands, and that’s enough to rub the gilt off the nicest of neighbourhoods.

Somewhat surprisingly, this is quite a favourable place to find somewhere to eat. The Orange Room on the other side of the road provides good Lebanese food and Cafe Meds up the street does excellent coffee and mighty omelettes. But Ariana’s where you want to come for dinner really, especially on a balmy May evening when a curry is too heavy and a salad is too light.

The sweet smells and verdant spread of the park outside were echoed in the cooking with generous use of fresh herbs and complex seasonings. This is food with varied, unpredictable flavours which manage to be punchy and subtle by turns.  The dishes aren’t dominated by oil, ghee, garlic or chilli – the classic starter was a well-received plate of large fresh mint and tarragon leaves with a slice of mild curd cheese and some walnuts. You couldn’t imagine anything simpler, but it was so satisfying when wrapped up in a square of fresh bread that I would have happily just dined on that alone.  It was accompanied by a slinky, smoky, divinely tasty aubergine dip, a pink-orange marvel which knocked standard-issue baba ganoush into a cocked hat.

And the bread! Let me tell you about the bread. There’s a tiled tandoor right in the front of the restaurant by the door and in case of bread requirement, the waiter would stroll up to it, roll out a stretchy sheet from prepared dough, perforate it with a little perforatey-wheel and use a pillow to slap it on the inside of the oven. It came out crispy, hot and divine.

My companion, Mr Nile, was especially enthusiastic about the peculiarly astringent, but overwhelmingly fresh flavours.  He can’t abide chili or horseradish, but the pungent, pickled-fermented flavour of the condiments won him over. It’s quite a distinct sensation from your average hot curry. Our main dishes were milder yet. I ordered a lamb shank with rice pilau, which turned out to be a resplendent mountain of food which I had no way of finishing. The lamb was buried in rice, which was in turn speckled with fat raisins, shredded carrot and nuts. The meat was perfectly done: falling off the bone, but retaining that close, meaty juiciness that good lamb has.  Mr Nile had ghormeh sabzi, a classic Iranian lamb dish in a smooth sauce of spinach, leeks, parsley, coriander and chives, infused with the bittersweet bite of a preserved lemon.  It was mild without being dull, smooth without being greasy.

The owner, Said, came over for a chat as we were contemplating our still-full plates and our already-full bellies. We talked about the pungent herbiness of the in-house chili sauce – a great whiff of parsley comes before the chili heat – and his pride in Iranian cooking. ‘I’m a chef, too’ he said, smiling. ‘It’s not hot, our food – our national dishes are mild, with lots and lots of fresh herbs’. After enthusing about the food, he sent over a couple of complementary baklavas. In keeping with the rest of the meal, they defied expectation by not being swimming in syrup but rather a restrained combination of crispy threads of something and sweet, mealy nuts in the middle.  As we crunched appreciatively into them, a group of lads came in and, chatting with the owner and waiter, occupied the raised, carpeted platform at the back of the restaurant, removing their shoes to climb up and sit in a circle. The waiter started laying out plates for what looked to be the beginnings of a generous meal, to be shared family-style.

Ariana is laid-back and welcoming, but don’t let that fool you into thinking the food won’t be superb. It’s a friendly local drop-in joint with the kind of food that’s worth travelling for.

Published in: on May 27, 2010 at 4:02 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Excellent blog! Do you have any suggestions for aspiring
    writers? I’m planning to start my own blog soon but I’m a little lost on everything.

    Would you advise starting with a free platform like WordPress or
    go for a paid option? There are so many options out there that I’m completely confused .. Any ideas? Thanks!

    • Hi there,

      Thank you, I’m glad you like the blog. I’m probably the last person you want advice from, though! As you can see, posting here has been extremely sporadic – I mostly set this blog up as procrastination from another project and haven’t maintained it very well. I suppose I would recommend listing your future posts and writing several of them in advance, and cue them to go up on certain days so you know you have some content and a bit of time to think about what else you’d like to go up. If you’re starting a food blog, I understand it’s de rigeur to post lots of beautiful pictures, but I haven’t done that here really. Also, as you can see from the last couple of posts before the latest one, I’m more interested in telling little stories related to food than actually talking about recipes.

      I learned to write blog posts by having a personal blog on a now-antiquated social network. I’ve had that account for ten years, and it’s quite a different environment, a sort of harbour basin rather than the wild open seas of the internet where people talk to each other a lot more than in other arenas, but it’s possible to limit who reads entries. But if you want people to read what you write, then you’ve got to point to it by linking to other blogs and commenting on them, using social media adeptly (letting people know about new posts without spamming them) and having stuff go up regularly.

      I love WordPress: it’s both powerful and easy to use, so I’d recommend just starting with a free WordPress account and tooling around with appearances etc for a week or so before you start pointing at what you’ve written.

      Good luck! Do leave a comment with a link when you’ve gotten going 🙂

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