If you’ve read this blog for a while you’ll know that I try to avoid restaurants that serve only so-called “small plates.” But Cy and I came across one last month that redeemed the small-plate concept. Even better, we ate there on vacation, when we were really primed to enjoy it.
I listed my small-plate bugaboos extensively in a previous post, but here’s a recap: The each-dish-coming-out-when-it’s-ready thing is annoying and unnecessary. It’s tyranny, really, eating when they decide that you can. No matter how good the food is, and it’s often very good, it’s still difficult to have an excellent dining experience at most of these places. If you’re not rushed through your food, you’re waiting while some of your party eats and vice-versa. If you’re sharing all the food, you’re trying your best not to take more than your portion — and inevitably there are bits left that you all end up eying, hungrily, but no one wants to be the one to make the first move and finish something up.
And worst of all, there’s rarely an option to get small pours of different wines to go with your variety of small plates.
But then last month, when my husband Cy and I were on our final night of vacation and hoping to have one last lovely dinner out, we found a small-plate restaurant that we’d go back to anytime. Joon Bar + Kitchen, in Provincetown, MA, does it right. And since it’s a small restaurant in an expensive town with a very short tourist season, if they can do it, anyone can.
We knew we weren’t in the DC-small-plate scene the moment we walked in. We saw a table by the front window and asked the hostess if we could sit there. She said we could, but that there was another party using that table in an hour and a half — and they reserve your table for two and a quarter hours. She thought we might feel a little rushed if we took it instead of the (equally lovely) one reserved for us. For a moment, we thought that 1.5 hours would probably be enough for our meal. But we decided to take her recommendation, and were glad we did.
The food was very good, nicely prepared, and beautifully served. The best thing, though, was that we were able to ask for our dishes in the order we wanted to eat them. Imagine, getting two small plates of our choosing at the same time, one hot and one cold. And then two more dishes at the same time, as requested. In the second round, one of the dishes was something that would no doubt have come out from the kitchen pretty much right away in any other small-dish place. But it came when we wanted it, right off the grill.
Though I found a wine on the list that we were happy to drink an entire bottle of despite our disparate dishes, Joon is a wine bar and you can request small pours of any of the wines served by the glass. Next time I’m going to try it out.
While we didn’t take the full time allotted to us, we stayed for two hours at Joon. Contrast this to some DC small-plate places that try to chase parties of four out in less than an hour and a half. And Joon’s not any more expensive than the DC places are. So check it out if you can. You’ll be surprised how civilized small plates can be.
As soon as we saw the sign “Joon,” Cy and I wondered if perhaps the owner might be Persian. Joon, in Farsi, is a term of endearment, like “dear” in English. Cy’s father came to the U.S. from Iran, and Cy’s paternal grandfather was called Papa Joon by his grandchildren. Cy and his sister still call each other Joon when they talk on the phone.
Sure enough, owner and sommelier Audrey is half-Persian like Cy. Her father called her Audrey Joon from the time she was born. So she named the restaurant Joon in his honor. The name fits, though, because it’s so welcoming. The photos on the wall are from her father’s family in Iran, and when I first saw them I wondered how they’d managed to get Cy’s family photos up in Provincetown.
Although there’s no Persian food on the menu at Joon, I thought it would be fun to have a small-plate Persian food recipe. Last year I posted a recipe for Albondigas, Spanish Tapas-style meatballs. Practically every culture has its own version, and the Persian ones are called Kufteh. You can form them on skewers and grill them, or make them as small meatballs and cook them in a tomato sauce with cinnamon and turmeric, as the recipe shows here.
The key to making them moist and not too dense is to soak uncooked Basmati rice in water for at least an hour, then drain it and grind it up in a food processor before adding it to the meat. It’s important to use Basmati rice because other varieties might not behave the same way. Some Persian rice dishes steam Basmati rice for over an hour and it still comes out beautifully — you can’t say that about some other long-grain rices. You should be able to find Basmati rice in the grocery store. But if not, see if your local Indian restaurant will sell you a little. You’ll only need a half a cup. Using rice instead of bread or bread crumbs in the meatballs makes them gluten free, too.
I first made Kufteh earlier this year from Louisa Shafia’s book The New Persian Kitchen, and this recipe is basically hers with several tweaks. The ingredients aren’t out of the ordinary, with two possible exceptions. One is turmeric, a spice not everyone may have around. If you’re someone who doesn’t want to buy a spice you don’t otherwise use to try a recipe, you can leave it out. But last week in my doctor’s office I read about turmeric’s use in relieving joint pain. So it might be worth buying after all. The other is mint. Shafia writes that many Persian cooks used dried herbs in cooking, especially mint. I never thought dried mint had any flavor, but if you’re going to make more middle-eastern food it would be convenient to have around. You can also substitute some dried or fresh basil, which might be easier to find — use about one-third as much dried basil as dried mint, or half as much fresh. I think wintertime fresh basil from the grocery store has more flavor than wintertime fresh mint, so it might work out better anyway.
Since this dish is basically meatballs in tomato sauce, I thought I’d pair it with our new spaghetti and meatballs wine: Azienda Agricola San Benedetto Chianti Tradizione ($14). We’ve just received shipments from two Italian wine producers, both in Tuscany. San Benedetto, near San Gimignano, makes classic northern Tuscan wines like Chianti, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, and Vermentino. Marco and Andrea Gianelli farm and make wine and olive oil on land their ancestors worked as sharecroppers. Their Chianti Tradizione is lighter-bodied, with a little acidity to stand up to the tomato sauce. A great wine for everyday meals. Italian wine and Persian food — combining great cuisines in a meal doesn’t have to be difficult!
Serves 8 as an appetizer or tapas-style course
1/2 cup basmati rice, soaked in cold water for at least one hour
4 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
3 tablespoons dried mint, or 1 cup loosely packed fresh mint (you can substitute 1 tablespoon dried basil, or 1/2 cup fresh basil leaves)
1 small onion, cut in pieces
1 pound lean ground beef (90%), or a mixture of ground beef and ground lamb
1 egg, beaten
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper
3 tablespoons olive oil (for browning)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, minced
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
3 cups cooked tomato sauce (use your favorite brand from a jar, preferably one with less herbs. If it’s very thick, add 3 tablespoons of water to it)
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper
1-2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Make the meatball mixture: Drain the rice well and shake off as much excess water as you can. Put the rice in a food processor with the garlic, mint or basil, and onion. Pulse until it’s ground up — there should be no large pieces of rice. Put the mixture into a large bowl and combine with the meat, egg, salt, and pepper. At this point you can cover the meatball mixture and refrigerate it for 24 hours if you’d like to do it ahead.
Make the sauce: Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan and sauté the onion until it’s lightly browned, about 10 minutes or so. Add the cinnamon and turmeric and cook for a minute. Stir in the tomato sauce and some black pepper. Bring to the simmer and taste for salt.
Brown the meatballs: While the onion is browning for the sauce, form the meatballs using one heaping tablespoon for each one. Heat the oil in a large non-stick skillet and lightly brown the meatballs on all sides. You’ll have to do this in batches, remove the browned meatballs and put them on a plate while you do the rest of them.
Finishing: When all the meatballs are browned, pour off any fat in the skillet and add the sauce. Scrape the bottom to mix in any browned bits. Add the meatballs back to the skillet and stir gently to coat them in sauce. Cover the pot and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Mix in 1 tablespoon of lemon juice — the sauce should be lightly acidic but not too much (it will depend on how acidic your tomato sauce is). Add another tablespoon of lemon juice if you think it needs it. Serve warm.