A taste of the world: A bevy of new restaurants bring international cuisine close to home

  • An interior view of Malek Shawarma Mediterranean Cafe is shown last week at 11 East Pleasant Street in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • An exterior view of Malek Shawarma Mediterranean Cafe is shown Nov. 19 at 11 East Pleasant Street in Amherst.

  • Ash reshteh, a soup-like dish containing chickpeas, wax beans, spinach, curd and noodles, is seasoned with saffron, spearmint, coriander, parsley, garlic and onions at TOP Kabab in Amherst. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • An interior view of Malek Shawarma Mediterranean Cafe is shown Nov. 19 at 11 East Pleasant Street in Amherst.

  • An exterior view of Himalaya Friends Corner restaurant is shown Nov. 19 at 61 Main Street in Amherst.

  • An exterior view of Formosa Chinese Food restaurant is shown Nov. 19 at 62 Main Street in Amherst.

  • An exterior view of where the new Ichiban Asian Cuisine restaurant will be located is shown Nov. 19 at 104 to 106 North Pleasant Street in Amherst.

  • Farhad Farahbakhsh brushes a kabab with butter and saffron before returning it to the grill at TOP Kebab in Amherst. The new restaurant at 31 Boltwood Walk is one of many in downtown Amherst that give the town’s cuisine choices an international flair. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS PHOTOS

  • Kashke e bademjan, a mixture of eggplant, curd, walnuts, onion, garlic, spearmint and tumeric, rests beside some sangak bread at TOP Kabab in Amherst. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Fire laps through kababs as they grill at TOP Kabab in Amherst. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Kababs cook on a grill at TOP Kabab in Amherst. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Dizi, a dish where lamb, tomatoes, potatoes, peas, onions and lemons are mashed in a bowl with doogh (yogurt, water and salt) is one of the offerings at TOP Kabab in Amherst. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • TOP Kebab, 31 Boltwood Walk, Amherst. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 11/27/2016 5:00:41 PM

AMHERST — For a taste of faraway lands — literally — one needs only to check out the diverse restaurant scene in Amherst these days.

Several restaurants have opened over the summer and fall — while others are in the works — that reflect the growing international flare of the Amherst dining scene that has long been dominated by pizza places, sub shops and Chinese restaurants. Among the newer restaurants are those that serve Tibetan, Lebanese, Japanese, Iranian and Italian foods.

“It really is interesting and exciting that we’re getting so many unique and one-of-a-kind restaurants in the Valley,” said Sarah la Cour, executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District.

One such restaurant is tucked away in a corner of Boltwood Walk. Taste of Persia Kabab, TOP Kabab, aims to bring an authentic Iranian dining experience to downtown Amherst.

“We have tried our best to offer foods that would be in the home country,” said Mohammad Babaee, the owner of the 31 Boltwood Walk restaurant, speaking through an interpreter.

Previously a chef in Iran, Babaee came to Amherst with his wife, Maryam Kashefi, a doctoral student in biophysical chemistry at the University of Massachusetts. Once in the United States, Babaee decided to resume his occupation.

From the Persian arcs in the windows, similar to what would be found in mosques in Iran, to the main grill in the kitchen, the goal is to transport diners to a foreign land.

“This is exactly what the kitchen and restaurant would be in my home country,” Babaee said.

In fact, to properly prepare the kabobs, Babaee knew he would need more lines of fire to cook the skewers holding the meat.

“We had to import the grill from my home country,” Babaee said.

At TOP Kabab, Babaee had suspected that many of his diners might be students from Iran or immigrants from his homeland, but so far he said it has been a diverse mix of people seeking a unique experience.

TOP Kabab is one of several new restaurants with an international flair.

While the long-running Amherst Chinese Restaurant at 62 Main St. transitioned to Formosa Restaurant, and Baku’s African Restaurant at 197 North Pleasant St. will become Lili’s Chinese restaurant, others that have opened include Tibetan food at the Himalaya Friends Corner Restaurant, 61 Main St., Lebanese cuisine at Malek Shawarma Mediterranean Cafe, 11 East Pleasant St., Italian fine dining at Fratelli’s Ristorante, 30 Boltwood Walk, and the planned Ichiban Japanese restaurant, 104-106 North Pleasant St.

Amherst Economic Development Director Geoffrey Kravitz said it’s not only the restaurant culture that creates this interest from chefs and other proprietors, but a willingness for people to try different foods.

“Amherst is known as a welcoming community, and that helps attract immigrant restaurateurs,” Kravitz said.

Similarly, Eliana Dabbous, who opened Malek Shawarma Labor Day weekend, said she wanted to create a place where people could experience “very Lebanese food.”

“It’s fresh, it’s healthy and it’s very authentic food,” said Dabbous, who also runs a neighboring barbershop.

The beef and chicken at her restaurant is marinated overnight before being prepared on a grill in a kitchen in view of customers.

“All of the food served here is made from scratch,” Dabbous said.

TOP Kabab’s process

At TOP Kabab, most of the food preparation is done before the actual cooking, with the beef cut into thin layers, and the beef, chicken and lamb all marinated overnight in lemon, onion, saffron and green pepper.

“It pays off because it makes it really delicious,” Babaee said.

Persian kabobs are halal food, meaning that the meat is produced in a way that is compatible with dietary guidelines for people of Muslim faith.

Once an order has been placed, Babaee, who handles the cooking himself most days, takes skewers with meat from the refrigerator and lays them over the grill, applying saffron and butter during the 10 minutes from the grill to the plate.

Each of the kabobs is served with a grilled tomato and a grilled pepper, with white rice on the traditional oval plates.

The menu selection, of course, is dominated by kabobs, include the ghafghazi kabob, a combination of beef and chicken, and the kubideh kabob, a mixture of onion, ground beef and other spices.

But there are other dishes, such as dizi, which Babaee describes as an ancient Persian food. Dizi is a kind of stew with lamb meat, cooked for several hours, and then served in special pots accompanied by a smasher. This allows a patron to mash the potato, meat and peas together and to eat this mixture with bread.

Other items at TOP Kabab include kashk e bademjan, which is eggplant with a special pastry dressing, ash reshteh, a special Persian soup with peas, beans and a variety of vegetables imported from Iran, adas polo, which includes rice, lentil and soy, and shirazi salad, made with tomato, cucumber and onion with lemon juice poured over it.

Yogurt is an important side with all Persian food, and TOP Kabab features cucumber yogurt and strained yogurt, and Doogh yogurt drinks.

Desserts on the menu include shole zard, a sort of pudding with rice, saffron and cinnamon and rosewater, and ice cream Jello.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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