At Rumi’s Kitchen, the Persian restaurant opening today near Mt. Vernon Square that’s already recognized as one of Atlanta’s top dining attractions, chef and owner Ali Mesghali measures success in 10-pound sacks of rice.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, each of the two Rumi’s locations in Georgia would go through about 2,000 pounds of rice per week and serve 700 diners on a typical Saturday night. Despite the volume, Mesghali refused to buy 40-pound bags of rice — they’d be too heavy for the staff — or install a tilt skillet, a piece of commercial equipment that would prevent a dedicated rice cook from going through 15 pots on a busy night. Mesghali insists on soaking grains for four to six hours in salt water, washing the rice, and boiling it at a temperature within a specific, 10-degree range. The rinsing water can’t be too hot or too cold, and the rice has to be at least 2 years old. A final cook with water and oil in a vessel with a cloth wrapped around the lid produces the prized tahdig, the golden layer of crust on the bottom.
In other words, Mesghali is meticulous about refining the cooking processes at his restaurants. He has trained chefs to run the kitchens and has made partner out of a former server and manager with an MBA, Chief Operations Officer Stephen Kaplan, but Mesghali still wants to monitor everything.
“I am involved. I work seven days a week. And I love what I do. It’s not even work to me,” he says. “My wife divorced me because of that, and she was the love of my life.”
The product of all that work is expanding a restaurant that has been spent time on Eater Atlanta’s Essential 38 and Atlanta Magazine’s 75 Best Restaurants. The lunch and dinner menu Mesghali and Kaplan have brought to the District is full of shareable Iranian meze, kebabs, and stews. The chef, who was born in Isfahan, Iran, and got his start as a 15-year-old dishwasher at a Persian restaurant in Los Angeles, has been tinkering with his specialties long before he opened the first Rumi’s in 2006.
Kaplan says the company must have tried 80,000 different blends of ground beef for a standard koobideh kebab before settling on a brisket and chuck mixture, with a special added fat they won’t reveal, that adheres to skewers in just the right way.
“It’s hard to operate a business like that. It’s hard to operate a high-volume business like that. But that’s what we do well,” Kaplan says.
Other kebabs spear saffron marinated chicken breast, beef tenderloin, or shrimp. Mesghali says Persians often go out for kebabs, but stews are more often home food, so he knows Rumi’s will be judged closely for a ghorme sabzi in which he allows a couple substitutions for American tastes and available produce. The herb stew incorporates beef flap steak and scallions, instead of Iranian leeks, to go with kidney beans and dried lime.
Taftoun (flatbread) gets slapped onto the heated bellies of tandoor ovens imported from across the Atlantic before being served along with a complimentary plate of herbs, radishes, nuts, and feta. Kashk badenjoon, a starter of fried eggplant dressed in cream of whey, crispy onion, and mint, is another signature of Rumi’s.
To open the restaurant, Mesghali says he will continue commuting back and forth from Atlanta. Georgia was the first state to reopen and lift restrictions put into place during coronavirus crisis. It is on D.C.’s list of high-risk states, meaning people traveling into the District are required to self-quarantine for 14 days after spending time there. Mesghali says half his staff at the D.C. restaurant came over from Atlanta, too, because the restaurant puts so much emphasis on the intricacies of grilling kebabs and the importance of educating diners on Persian food.
Mesghali and Kaplan say they do not take the health risks of operating a restaurant lightly, providing personal protective equipment for staff, installing sanitizer stations throughout the restaurants, and investing in temperature gauges to check all workers and customers before they enter the building. Mesghali was one of 120 restaurateurs who signed a pledge not to reopen right away when Georgia first lifted restrictions.
“Just because [Georgia has] the least amount of regulations doesn’t mean I have to go by it,” Mesghali says. “We’re all bout safety first for our staff.”
Rumi’s Kitchen (640 L Street NW) offers online ordering for takeout right off the bat, and plans to add delivery soon. Reservations for outdoor and indoor dining are available through Open Table. Mesghali has also taken a page from the Inn at Little Washington, staging ornately dressed mannequins at indoor tables to make the new restaurant feel less empty. The restaurant is open from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Friday, noon to 11 p.m. on Saturday, and noon to 10 p.m. on Sunday.