Mulavi sits on the ground floor of a towering Midtown apartment building in a quadrant of the city known for its hustle and bustle. With its sleek brown interior and bright-orange, statement lighting fixture, the West Peachtree restaurant might pass for one of the swanky nearby nightclubs or condo lobbies.
Like its sister establishment, Sufi’s Kitchen, 2 miles north on Peachtree Street, Mulavi serves many standards of the Persian repertoire: earthy stews, grilled kebabs, rice pilafs bejeweled with raisins, nuts and saffron. Though it calls itself a Mediterranean restaurant, it offers everything from burgers and fancy grilled cheeses to brunch waffles and a jambalaya spin on shrimp and grits.
Despite its address in a populous, pedestrian-friendly neighborhood, dining at Mulavi can be a lonely, soulless affair.
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On a recent Saturday night, my two guests and I sat in a nearly empty room. We sipped $14 cocktails, ordered an array of appetizers (falafel, baba ghanoush, cucumber-yogurt dip) and pecked at uninspired entrees (turmeric-crusted fried flounder, a lamb shank with carrots and potatoes, the eggplant-and-tomato stew called gheymeh bademjan).
Another time, I stopped by for lunch, ordered a burger and felt like a castaway on a deserted island. I was the only customer in the whole wide place. Even the server made himself scarce. Hello? Is anyone home?
With its all-over-the-map menu, scattershot service and tomblike ambience, Mulavi is a dud: a place that appears to run on autopilot and makes minimal attempts to connect with customers. Where are the warmth and hospitality, people?
No surprise, then, that this absentee policy manifests itself in the cooking.
Over three visits, the best thing I had was a hamburger and fries, of all things. Though the namesake Mulavi Burger was cooked a shade beyond the requested medium, it was still a juicy affair: a nicely seasoned patty stacked with roasted tomato, eggplant and red bell pepper, spring mix, Bulgarian feta, and roasted red onion aioli — all on a brioche bun. The fresh-cut fries were wonderful, too. Should I ever return, this satisfying burger made me hopeful about the Reuben and the so-called All Grown Up Grilled Cheese (pepper jack, havarti and Swiss on sourdough with bourbon-bacon jam).
The Mediterranean dishes, however, were hit or miss.
I loved scooping the luscious hummus on the warm, pillowy pita or crispy-crunchy cucumber and carrot slices. Lemon chicken and rice soup was simple and comforting: a chunky bowl of carrots, celery, onion, chicken and rice in a broth that was more evocative of turmeric than lemon.
Green-lentil falafel was overtly dry, even when dunked in the smoky tahini accompaniment. Cucumber and Greek yogurt dip was perfectly fine, a nice thing to dribble on our tangy stews. But the baba ghanoush was dull, forgettable.
I’m a big fan of ghormeh sabzi, the Persian beef-and-kidney bean stew cooked with dried limes, fenugreek, and a paste of herbs and greens: ingredients that render it almost black. But the version here didn’t pack the kind of brightness that distinguishes a really fine ghormeh sabzi, and you had to look hard to find the beef.
The gheymeh bademjan had a nice distinctive tanginess, making it a safer choice, perhaps, than the ghormeh sabzi. If only the rice were better: Considering that Persian food is normally served with glorious, impeccably steamed, long-grain basmati, I found the version here rather lacking: more firm than fluffy, perfect in an Uncle Ben’s kind of way, kind of flavorless.
The lamb shank was tender, but hardly a showstopper, the turmeric-hued broth rather similar to the chicken soup. I was even less impressed with the sabzi polo mahi, a kind of Persian fried fish amandine with onion and garlic sauce and baghali polo (rice with dill and favas).
In sum, Mulavi is a bit of a puzzlement. As a spot to have a burger and a beer and watch sports on TV, it succeeds — albeit in a generic, hotel-lounge kind of way. As a destination for fine Persian food? Forget about it. Stick to Rumi’s Kitchen.
There are restaurants that try very hard and still come up short. Sadly, Mulavi doesn’t seem to try much at all.
11 a.m.-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Fridays; 9:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturdays; 9:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays. 915 W. Peachtree St., Unit 6, Atlanta. 404-975-2316, mulavi.com.
Recommended: Hummus. Mulavi Burger.