He’s also excited to introduce diners to kufteh, a meatball the size of a softball and ringed in tomato sauce. Slicing into the mound reveals an egg, ground walnuts and barbari (flatbread) crumbs along with ground beef. Imagine a Scotch egg on steroids, striped with yogurt sauce. Farivar says cooks back home are judged by the smoothness and size of their kufteh. Cracks in the meat are frowned upon.
The name of the restaurant, the successor to Scion in Dupont Circle, combines the owners’ focus on wine, some from the Middle East, as well as the question the brothers asked fellow immigrants they met after settling in the United States. The response to “78 or 79?” distinguished countrymen who came to America before or after the Iranian Revolution that overthrew the country’s last monarch.
The pale blue walls of the main dining room, fronted with a light-filled patio, could be mistaken for those of an art gallery. In fact, the paintings on display come from a local Iranian artist, Atousa Raissyan. The overall feel will be familiar to patrons of Peacock Cafe, the American cafe the brothers have operated in Georgetown since 1991.
It all sounds like a recipe for a full house. Alas, too much of the food resembles in-flight dining — and I’m talking economy class rather than business. The chef says he’s working on training his non-Persian staff to capture the richness of his native cuisine, where aroma, among other details, is crucial. At this early stage, however, a lot of the food is leaving the kitchen less than fragrant and, sadly, less than satisfying.
The meatballs in the fesenjan are dense as marbles and the kufteh, while free of cracks, tastes more of bread than beef. It’s as if the kitchen is holding back, rationing saffron, dried limes and other Persian delights. Modest pleasures include stuffed grape leaves, slightly smoky from the grill and scattered with feta; and kotlet, tender beef-and-potato patties garnished with tomatoes and cucumbers. Thank goodness for the pickled vegetables alongside the lubia polo, otherwise flat-tasting short ribs atop a bed of rice strewn with green beans.
My happiest takeaway is one of the simplest dishes: chicken rubbed with a reduction of tart cherry juice that turns into a scarlet glaze as the entree is grilled. A bite of chicken, splayed on basmati rice, and all seems well.
I wish there were more such moments at Vintage78, off to a faint start.
2100 P St. NW. 202-652-1423. vintage78dc.com. Dinner entrees, $19.95 to $35.95.