I can’t remember the last time I’ve been so entertained during dinner. In a synthesis of the physical and the transcendental, dinner theater―or, as is the case at Khayyam Restaurant, belly dancing―competes constantly with culinary artistry in an unspoken battle for our attention.
In this case, the competition pitted a twirling, graceful dancer wielding a sword against uninspired food and overall poor service. You can bet the food lost.
That’s not to say it was a bad meal, per se. The highlights, like Mahicheh Baghali ($16.99), incredibly tender braised lamb shank, and Fasenjan ($14.99) a rich, mellifluous pomegranate and ground walnut sauce served over supple chunks of chicken, were outstanding.
I had heard praise for Khayyam’s kebobs, and they lived up to reputation―chicken kebobs, known as Morgh Barg ($12.99), were grilled to juicy perfection. Beef Kubideh ($11.99), another type of Persian kebob in which a mixture of ground meat, onion, egg, and spices, and is pressed around a skewer and grilled—a kind of meatloaf on a stick―is savory and well-seasoned, if a bit eggy. Mahi Azad ($15.99), skewers of salmon marinated in lemon juice, olive oil, and spice and then grilled, was cooked perfectly.
The rest of the meal, an adequate but unimpressive collection of muted flavor, lost our attention in competition with the talented belly dancer. She shook! She shimmied! She balanced a sword on her head! Khayyam boasts “family friendly” belly dancing several nights a week, smiling dancers who glamorize the aisle between the '60s-style maroon leather booths, amid whistling and applause.
The dancer’s charm and athleticism won our applause and appreciation―unlike the appetizers we ate during her performance. Khayyam’s version of hummus ($4.99) is incredibly smooth and velvety, but, perhaps in a minimalist interpretation, tasted devoid of any tahini, garlic or lemon. It arrived with a basket of cold storebought pita wedges. The falafel ($4.99) was dry, despite an accompanying sour yogurt sauce.
Taddig ($4.99), a layer of crispy rice that cooks up at the bottom of a pot, is a crunchy Persian favorite. Here it was served as an appetizer under a ladleful of stew, which on that day was the tangy Khoresht Ghormeh Sabzy, stewed green vegetables with kidney beans and the tartness of dried lemon.
A cucumber-tomato salad sprinkled with lemon would have been refreshing, if we hadn’t detected the bitter ammonia of bottled lemon juice.
Rice pilaf is often the center of a Persian meal, and it is solid here―never overly starchy, and al dente to the tooth. But the flavorings in our Shirin Polo, ranging from orange peels to little sour barberries to pistachio nuts, lounged on top of the dish like garnishes, rather than mixing throughout the pilaf. It was fine, but nothing to write home to Persia about.
The service ranged from the decent to the bad to the very bad―rather than informing us that the kitchen was out of saffron ice cream, someone along the chain of command served us pistachio nuts atop a scoop of plain vanilla; it appeared on our bill as “pistachio ice cream,” and, oh yes, cost the same amount as the saffron.
My recommendation? If you go, go for the belly dancing. The performance is a novelty that enhances the mostly un-novel food―though there are some gems hidden in the garish, bright blue menu that might make your trip worthwhile.
Khayyam Restaurant is open for lunch 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Sunday, and for dinner 5 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Monday through Sunday. BYOB. 404 Harvard Street, Brookline. Webpage: http://khayyaminc.info/. MBTA: Green Line (B) to Harvard Street.