The staff here are all lovely, if not particularly swift. They stroll around the restaurant with smiles on their faces, like they are guests at a good party. It’s a long, crowded dining room and it wasn’t unusual to see a waiter walk past several tables of people with hopeful, hungry looks on their faces on his way to clear a plate, his eyes fixed blissfully on the horizon.
But, man, something is going right here because the place is packed. We were lucky to get a table at 8pm, and as one group left another would arrive to replace them — the final party arriving well after 9pm, when most Auckland restaurants have emptied.
It was a lovely mix: Boomer couples, businessmen, a family with a newborn, teenagers in headscarves, labourers in high-vis clothing.
As is often the case with these narrow rooms, the tables are packed closely together, making it quite difficult to reach your seat along the wall without knocking over your neighbour’s wine glass with your bottom. If you’re worried about it, request one of the tables in the laneway, or get a smaller bottom.
We started with a vegetarian mezze platter and things were looking good — a dip made of pureed eggplant, walnuts and whey (a new one to me) was just the sort of thing you want from a cuisine you don’t often eat. Flavours of garlic and dried mint, a soft, wet texture with a bit of nutty crunch and accompanied by flatbreads, scorched and oiled and cut into the shape of narrow pizza slices — it’s a hungry man’s dream.
There were also some regulation stuffed vine leaves and a very herby frittata alongside a salad we would become familiar with over the evening: thinly sliced carrot and cabbage in two colours.
One of our group was a vegetarian and she was pleased to see a couple of promising meat-free options on the menu but the eggplant stew she ended up with was pretty punishing: good if you like stewed eggplant, I guess, but for me it’s a vegetable whose appeal depends almost entirely on how you cook it (deep fried and pureed are two favourites), and this way — hot and wet — didn’t bring out its best qualities.
Sam ordered the mixed kebab — one each of chicken, beef and pork, cooked on a skewer then lined up next to each other on a plate with rice and salad. It’s a solid order if you like meat — those kebabs are clearly brushed with a little something while being grilled but don’t come with a particular sauce so you have to be in the mood for lamb that tastes like lamb, for example.
At a kebab shop, you get a little aioli or chilli sauce as an option, but perhaps Rumi’s way is more traditionally Persian. We did order a side of yoghurt for dipping but for me, it wasn’t quite enough to flavour this dish up.
I had the lamb shank, which worked pretty well, if again being a little under-powered to the taste buds. It’s a lovely cut of meat treated well by the chef — the flesh falls off the bone easily and pleasingly — though the outside of the shank is pale rather than browned so you miss a bit of the Maillard reaction, relying instead on some residual flavour presumably from a rub applied before cooking.
A jus of sorts is supplied in a metal jug though there’s no information as to what it is or how to use it. I poured it over the shank and rice but it was quite watery so suddenly my meal resembled a thin soup. It was fine and I finished everything on my plate.
The highlight was the dessert—a subtle but unmistakable saffron ice cream, served with baklava soaked in something honeyed and delicious. A rice pudding is worth ordering too—the world’s most expensive spice once again lending a rare and appealing fragrance to this simple dish.
Not having eaten much Persian food I was a bit puzzled by the whole experience so did the only obvious thing—sent a DM to the Right Honourable Helen Clark, who I’d spotted a proud picture of on Rumi’s wall.
“Iranian/Afghan food is not heavily flavoured but served piping hot is delicious!” she confirmed.
If you’re up for some authentic grub in busy and beautifully decorated surrounds, Rumi is your place.