Thursday, February 3, 2011

Bha! Bha! A Persian Bistro and a Naples Treasure!

Bha! Bha! whisks you to an exotic world of deliciously unique Persian cuisines, served in a relaxed setting. It’s all about delicious taste- the tastes of Persia, the tastes of chef/owner Michael Mir. He transports tastes from cosmopolitan Tehran and rustic Persian villages alike, exciting palates that hail from New York City to Kansas City. Awakened customers return to try even more new dishes aromas and spicings.
  Dine al fresco, or enter and hear the dancing waters of the central fountain. Relax with the orange and green walls and exotic Persian music. Take in the beautiful carpets displayed on the walls and the richly colored fabrics. You’re not in Kansas anymore!

Our server, Chayan,  and  Michael Mir are quite helpful with recommending dishes suited to your preferences.

The dozen or so regular and special appetizers are priced from $8-14. One can be a meal for a light eater. They include spicy garlic New Zealand green mussels, portobello stuffed with curried lamb and feta, aash-a thick peasant soup, and butternut squash soup. We selected three appetizers.

Bha! Bha’s mango shrimp with garlic sauce ($12)has been my favorite over the years. Large shrimp are perfectly sautéed then sauced with a light, tartly- sweet chutney, some lamb stock for richness, and a hint of heat for contrast. 
 (As an aside, sauces in the Middle East may be thickened with yoghurt or arrowroot as well as flour or cornstarch. Arrowroot gives a glossier finish than cornstarch.)  Slightly crunchy cooked carrots and vegetables round out the dish. My guest A notes, “The shrimp are properly cooked, not rubbery as at other restaurants. The sauce is wonderful! I never would have thought to order it, and now it’ll be a must have on our next visit!” R says “It has a nice almost sweet and sour taste, and it has the rich Middle Eastern flavors as a surprise. It’s delicious!” Recommended.

Pistachio lamb meatballs ($12), a special, has lamb croquettes served on butternut squash with cous cous, tomatoes, olives and cheese 
 Our lamb comes tender, medium rare as recommended, and the bold exotic spicing is a welcome treat. There are hints of mint in the pomegranate pinot noir sauce. This uses Turkish style spicing with cumin peppers and curry. It finishes on the palate with a light, lingering touch of Persian sumac.

Eggplant and artichoke ($11), presents a rich subtle taste and creamy consistency, offset by  the little salt burst that accompanies bites with an olive.
 The richness of the tastes and texture is enhanced by layering eggplant then artichokes. The sauce, similar to a French Dijonnaise’s mustard and lemon juice base, incorporates dill and other Middle Eastern spices. Persian cheeses are hard to come by, so Michael sources a similar Bulgarian feta cheese that melts just right, to top the dish. Voila, Usually served in a French terrine, it’s the hit of our table. Highly recommended.

Mango Ginger Shrimp, Lamb, and Eggplant Artichoke
 Main dishes include ginger apricot shrimp ($25), featured in Bon Appetite magazine 2007; seafood khoresh ($27) with shrimp, mussels, calamari, salmon and snow peas in a tomato saffron broth; char broiled leg of lamb grilled then drizzled with yoghurt, and  various khorshes, or slow braises.

We shared three main dishes. The classic mixed grill ($26) is a delicious trio! The tasty beef tenderloin is marinated, cooked medium rare as ordered and lightly spiced. 
 The joojeh marinated chicken breast is so tender. The star of the dish is the ~10 inch long  kebab cylinder of spiced, grilled  koobeidah ground lamb, rich with onions, garlic, turmeric and spices. The rice is cooked longer than in other dishes, making it drier and more delicate. I like savoring a trio, as it’s not something I’d cook at home.

Yoghurt lamb risotto (24) comes perfectly cooked in its clay pot, moist, not soggy or dry, and the seasoned lamb is falling off the bone delicious!
 Michael was born in Tehran, but his grandmother was Kurdish; her rustic dish was something you’d start with bones, rice and yoghurt, then add caramelized onions, some lentils, and a few local spices. Michael carries on the tradition with made-on- premises yoghurts,  turmeric, Persian yellow peas and  lamb stock that’s daily concentrated from low and slow cooked lamb bones. Rice is added and kept moist like a risotto. It’s topped with garlic, minted oil and slivered toasted almonds. My companion says, “I love the crunch of the toasted almonds-it’s such a surprise and contrast to the rice.  I just can’t help myself from finishing the whole dish!  This is my favorite, favorite meal here.”

Exotic music plays softly in the background.
The slow braised lamb shank pot du jour (28) arrives, served in a clay pot. It’s been featured in Bon Appetit magazine too, so word and recipes of Michael’s dishes have gotten around the world! 
 This is an elegant dish that someone would make at their home for you, not a typical restaurant dish. The slow-braised lamb is very tender and the savory thick tomato based sauce is  delicious. The sauce’s onions garlic and mushrooms are subtle, so the lamb’s taste comes first to your palate. It’s oven-baked in a traditional clay pot until the flavors come together.
 The slightly caramelized grilled vegetables on top are delicious-the tastes leave us speechless!

Comparing the six dishes we’ve had, each tastes so different from the next. The moist risotto is so unlike the lamb shank! The Persian dishes are so unique and wonderfully varied in spicing and appearance.

Desserts are $7.50, and well worth it.

My favorite is the lusciously moist butternut squash cake jewel cake. From the description, we figured it’d be very good, and wondered how Michael would balance the ingredients.  It has a subtle sweetness. The rich texture of the moist, roasted squash forms a cake that’s lighter than expected. It’s more like a dense sponge cake than a squash cake might seem. 

The crowning touch is the rich sweetness of apricots, mango and several prunes atop the cake, drizzled with a fruit-jam like syrup. The fruits on top have concentrated flavors- perhaps they are slightly candied , then  dried. It’s like an upside down cake, with fruits on top, though it’s tall, and the fruits' richness is similar to that a tart tatin.  Apricots and prunes never tasted this rich! The desert is nicely understated and light enough that one could finish it, and not feel stuffed or have a sugar high. I want this recipe!

Baklava is light, and not as cloyingly sweet as some other country’s baklava. A noted, “It has a nice mellow flavor, that would be overpowered by the honey and sugar that others might use.”  It reminds him of a British mince pie, with its raisins, cinnamon, perhaps cloves  and other spices.

There’ s also minted apricot and orange peel ice cream; ginger watermelon sorbet made from Immokalee’s finest, and a flourless triple chocolate cake with sour cherries.
Bha Bha’s foods, as exotic as some dishes sound, really are a universal comfort food, just wearing a translucent veil of subtly different spices. The subtle tastes and the overall experience brings you back, again and again. The regulars have a good thing going, and don’t want to have to wait for a table. With most prices under $25 and large portions, I’ve been hesitant to disclose it, and share one of my SW Florida “to go “ spots.
“Steak and potatoes” folks might feel like Alice in Wonderland at first. New tastes and new textures with the luscious lamb and beef win over some converts without even trying! Familiar vegetables can get old, as served at some steakhouses. Here, garden delights are prepared in fresh ways that makes them more attractive than ever. My guests say, “They make such an effort with their grilled vegetables that everything on the plate is made with love and care, loaded with taste and dusted with spices without overdoing it.”  “It’s all very healthy, especially the way they cook the vegetables.”
Every day is a $12.50 prix fix 3 course lunch, and every night is a $24 prix fix 3 course dinner. There are coupons for early dining (two for one) in the Naples Daily News.

Come for Sunday brunch, or Persian dancing and belly dancing Thursday nights. What's the competition? None! Bha! Bha! is a unique treasure to Naples. I've eaten here many times since 1997, and always leave happy, often with leftovers that I savor the next day.

847  Vanderbilt Beach Road, Naples, 594-5557,

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