In New Orleans, March is full of special events and holidays. After weeks filled with Carnival parades, the city is still raring to go with things like Super Sunday, the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, Hogs for the Cause, the BUKU Music + Art Project, St. Joseph’s Day (and all its fabulous altars) and, lest we forget, St. Patrick’s Day. It always amazes me that after numerous days and nights filled with cries of “Throw me something, Mister!” New Orleanians are still fresh for the ever-popular St. Paddy’s parades. Hands that were catching beads less than a month earlier are ready to field hurled cabbages, potatoes and carrots.
I, too, admire the four-leaf clover and enjoy reveling in Irish culture, but March also holds a special place in my heart for Nowruz, or Persian New Year. Celebrated for thousands of years, Nowruz marks the first day of spring, which usually lands on or around March 21. Similar to Easter, Nowruz embraces rebirth and buying new clothes and reveling in nature is part and parcel of the celebration. As well, certain foods are made and enjoyed—food with symbolic intent like ash-e reshteh, a soup with long, flat noodles that signify the different paths of a person’s life; sabzi polo, a rice dish with a lot of fresh herbs that represent the new growth in spring; and dolmeh bargeh mo, or stuffed grape leaves that are believed to help your dreams and wishes come true. Every year, my family would throw a big party and, every year, my mother would make stuffed grape leaves.
My father planted a grapevine in our backyard, not to grow grapes as you might expect (they were always tiny and incredibly sour), but for the leaves. I will never forget being sent to the backyard every spring with a pair of scissors and a colander to clip the largest leaves from our vine. They were washed, trimmed and then stacked in preparation for a stuffing made from ground beef and lamb, dried dill weed, saffron, cooked rice and melted butter. My mom would make at least a hundred dolmeh, all of which would disappear before the party was over.
Although there are no Persian restaurants in New Orleans…yet, there are plenty of delectable dolmeh to be found in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean-style eateries all over the city. One of the first I tried (and one I keep going back to) is Babylon Cafe on Maple Street. Located next to a laundromat, Babylon is a bastion for hungry college students and neighbors looking for an affordable yet satisfying lunch. They make both vegetarian and beef-filled dolmeh served with labneh, or a thick, creamy yogurt topped with olive oil and dried mint. Enjoy the appetizer for only $6 or get the entree for $11, which includes a fresh salad, hummus or rice, and bread. By the way, I’d definitely opt for their house-made bread; it makes all the difference.
The wildly popular Lebanon’s Café, located mere blocks away on Carrollton Avenue, is another great place to score stuffed grape leaves. Denizens in the neighborhood (and outside it) tend to make this a weekly lunch spot where they can enjoy all kinds of Middle Eastern favorites at a reasonable price in a comfortable, brightly decorated atmosphere. An appetizer plate of four stuffed grape leaves will set you back a whopping $4.50, so why not throw in a slice of spanakopita (spinach phyllo pie) and Lebanese iced tea made with rosewater and a sprinkling of pine nuts? Why not, indeed...
In the downtown area, right next to the Orpheum Theater, is a newer spot that all of the local critics are raving about: Cleo’s Mediterranean Cuisine and Grocery. One of the very few restaurants in New Orleans that is open 24 hours a day, Cleo’s is a cool convenience store/restaurant serving everything from goat cheese sandwiches and tabbouleh to lamb shanks. You can easily enjoy their stuffed grape leaves appetizer (veggie or beef), a Lamb Lula Kebab Wrap and a cup of Turkish coffee without breaking the bank.
When discussing Middle Eastern or Mediterranean options in the Cresent City, it would be a mistake not to mention Mona’s Cafe. With four locations (in Mid-City, Carrollton, Irish Channel and Marigny), Mona’s is a bona fide staple in New Orleans when it comes to this type of cuisine. Along with stuffed grape leaves ($4.99 for the appetizer, $10.99 for the entree), Mona’s chicken and beef shawarma always seem to be a hit. In fact, every time I’m in Mona’s (regardless of the location), the servers, my friends and even other patrons always recommend it.
Although I’ve enjoyed the dolmeh at all of these restaurants, none quite measures up to my mother’s dolmeh. Oh well, what can I say but “Eid-eh Shoma Mobarak!” (Happy New Year!)