After sampling the cuisine at Bha! Bha! Persian Bistro's new location on Fifth Avenue in downtown Naples last week, I now understand why readers have badgered me to go there for so long.
After being in business for 15 years, Bha! Bha! opened at 865 Fifth Ave. S. in downtown Naples about a month ago after moving from the Pavilion shopping center in North Naples.
The new Bha! Bha! home is a charming brick building that has gone through extensive remodeling. The property is in the thick of activity on Naples' version of restaurant row, and the restaurant now can be counted as one of the most beautiful and sultry places to dine. The restaurant has a full bar and cool outdoor dining — plus a swanky-sexy seating area in the front replete with embroidered cushions and footstools that evoke a fancy on the faraway lands along the Silk Road.
Middle-Eastern cuisine contains spices and flavors that can make one's taste buds sing. Chief among those flavors are parsley, saffron, cinnamon and lime. In the marriage of proteins and vegetables with potent herbs, Bha! Bha! Persian Bistro's appetizers and entrees closely follow those flavor profiles down to the seasoned rice and pomegranate seeds.
The meal began with the mast-o khyiar, a fragrant house-made yogurt ($6) that was a portent of dishes to come. Every attention to detail was paid to what would otherwise be a humble dish. Accented with cucumbers and edible flowers and a sprig of mint, it was refreshing and opened the appetite. Be sure also to attend to a hearty helping of the Persian lavash bread, unique to this type of cuisine and a welcome alternative to the tired bread and butter or olive oil served at most restaurants.
The haleem bademjune ($10) — warm eggplant appetizer garnished with sour cream and caramelized walnuts and scallions — possesses a layering of flavors that makes it seem like an entree and feel like an appetizer. That's the trick to this food — you get a lot of it, but you leave feeling satisfied, not heavy.
Soup lovers can indulge in two delightful soups at Bha! Bha! The aash soup is a variety of beans, herbs and Persian noodles and the toasted butternut squash soup is served with fresh rosemary. Both are $8.
Classic appetizers include marinated feta ($6) and hummus served with pita and olives (small, $8, large, $12) and imported olives marinated in herbs, garlic and spices ($6).
Executive chef Daniel Virola skillfully uses one of my most favorite kernels of joy in some of his dishes — the adaptable and texturally delightful pistachio. His pistachio lamb meatballs ($13) are prepared with a mint-infused pomegranate pinot noir reduction atop sautéed butternut squash. Scrumptious!
But it's his pistachio encrusted rack of lamb, called sheeshleek, that leaves lamb lovers breathless. It is easy to understand why in-the-know diners refer to Bha! Bha! as Naples' official lamb restaurant. The tender, savory beyond savory sheeshleek ($43) is served with basmati rice blended with fava beans and seasoned with dill. It is a special dish that is delivered fresh, so if you're traveling to Bha! Bha! Bistro just for this, call ahead to ensure they are serving it that evening.
It is served alongside several other lamb dishes that include the lamb bademjune ($27), grilled medallions of lamb ($31), plum lamb ($27) and lamb kabob ($28). If you've been looking for lamb in all the wrong places, turn a keen eye to Bha! Bha!
The shireen polo with chargrilled boneless chicken ($25) is one of the most colorful dishes on the menu, accented with kabobed veggies. The pomegranate lacquered fresh salmon is served on saffron lentils tossed with apricots, raisins, caramelized onions and grilled veggies ($29). The ginger apricot shrimp ($28) is finished in a spicy mango tamarind sauce.
For diners who enjoy vegetarian dishes, the vegetarian reshte is a concoction of sautéed seasonal vegetables with fresh herbs tossed with Persian noodles in a garlic saffron sauce ($21).
All of the desserts are made in-house as well — including apricot mint ice cream, Persian baklava, almond custard and chocolate cake, all $8.
In the family of ethnic restaurants, it deserves the same love and frequency of visits as any fabulous Italian, Asian or French restaurant. For first-timers to Bha! Bha!, Virola, owner Michael Mir, operating partner Miguel Martinez and dining manager Rado Sundic have their own personal favorites to suggest. They love to lead new guests on the journey to discover this romantic and exotic cuisine.
So don't be shy — speak up, ask questions and unless your palate is nonexistent, you will find something to love on their menu.