By Katherine Mast · Photos by Douglas Merriam
Left: Vegetarian plate with dolmas, beet falafel, lebna with pistachio-olive tapenade, and hummus. Right: Stuffed trout with walnuts, barberries, garlic, tarragon, onions, and dill basmati rice.
It’s been a little more than a year since chef Neema Sadeghi opened the doors of Milad Persian Bistro, his first restaurant, and swiftly joined the luminaries of Santa Fe’s Canyon Road eateries. Tucked into a small corner lot abutting El Farol and across the street from Geronimo’s, the inviting space features traditional Iranian cuisine and modern reinventions of dishes from the broader Middle East. Kabobs with saffron rice; flavor-packed small plates; and irresistible specials like the popular trout, served whole and stuffed with walnuts, barberries, and fresh tarragon all provide tantalizing options.
“I’ve always had this idea of doing Persian food, but in a way that is accessible and shown in a different light,” says Sadeghi. “Persians go out for kabobs, specifically, but they don’t go out to eat some of the other dishes I make here—they’d just make them at home.”
For instance, ta’chin—a buttery baked saffron rice cake stuffed with chicken and garnished with barberries—is more often found in a family’s kitchen than on the menu of an Iranian restaurant. And while Sadeghi serves his ta’chin as an individual small plate, it’s more often prepared and shared in family-sized portions. Sharing is at the heart of Persian food, says Sadeghi. Perhaps the best way to enjoy the array of flavors at Milad is to arrive with a group of friends and order a handful of small plates to pass around the table.
For novices to Persian food, Sadeghi recommends the kashk e bademjan—a rich eggplant and walnut spread with garlic, tart yogurt, and mint—or the sabzi plate, a quintessential Persian assortment of herbs and cheese with pita.
Left: Neema Sadeghi of Milad Persian Bistro. Right: Vegetarian plate.
For a more adventurous palate, the jigar (grilled beef liver with pomegranate glaze) offers an experience of unique flavor and texture. To drink, order the yogurt soda, a traditional carbonated, slightly salty beverage that’s “just the drink to have with kabobs,” says Sadeghi. “People have strong reactions to yogurt soda—they either love it or hate it.”
When it comes to sourcing local ingredients, Sadeghi has faced difficulties finding farms that can consistently provide the kind of volume a commercial kitchen demands. He’s able to find lamb from growers in New Mexico and Colorado, and his pistachios come from Alamogordo. He collaborates with other local small businesses: he orders produce through Squash Blossom; offers tea, coffee, and kombucha from New Mexico outfits; and features a cardamom, pistachio, and rose water ice cream made specially for Milad by La Lecheria.
Other ingredients, like saffron—the pungent, precious stigmas of crocus flowers—and barberries—sweet/tart fruits that look and taste somewhat like cranberries, are imported directly from Iran.
Sadeghi grew up preparing food with his grandmother in Washington, D.C., which is where his family landed after the Iranian Revolution in the late seventies. He never gave much thought then to preparing Persian food, but as he got older and began working all manner of jobs in restaurants, he learned new techniques that he wanted to use on the foods from his heritage. “I started applying that experience in the restaurant industry to understanding how food from my own culture was made,” he says.
Now, he’s added another dimension: wine. “Iran is a predominantly Muslim country, so you don’t have a lot of wine drinkers,” he says, though it shows up in the historic poetry of writers like Hafiz. At Milad, Sadeghi features boutique wines from places like Greece and Macedonia.
Sadeghi hopes to offer a relaxed and comfortable dining experience at a price that is more accessible than most other restaurants on Canyon Road, but to do so in the spirit of fine dining. He doesn’t sell many high-end wines, for instance, “But when someone orders a $100 bottle, we know how to pour it. We’re prepared for that person,” he says.
Ta’chin: crispy saffron rice and turmeric chicken, garnished with barberries and onions.
Beyond a nuanced and creative approach to Persian food, Sadeghi brings an artistic sensibility to Milad. He’s a musician and photographer, has worked in film, and studied interior and graphic design in Barcelona. That’s part of what allowed him to transform a once run-down empty building into a cozy, inviting space that makes efficient use of a small footprint and an unconventional layout.
“All those different elements of art apply to restaurants,” says Sadeghi. “You get to use all that knowledge. There’s music and lighting involved, language and communication, knowing how people behave in a space.”
In Milad, Sadeghi aims for a narrow target in Santa Fe’s abundant restaurant scene: a casual atmosphere with the service and attention to detail of fine dining; a comfortable dining experience in a tight space; and a creative, innovative menu that is true to its roots.