BOULDER, Colo. -- At the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse, diners can choose Tajik lamb shish kebab, Japanese sake chicken, Portuguese stuffed pork loin, or Mexican fish tacos, among other items. The globe-hopping menu was designed to reflect the spirit of the teahouse itself, a gift to the city of Boulder from the people of its sister city, Dushanbe, Tajikistan, says the proprietor, Lenny Martinelli.
"The whole idea of sister cities is bringing different cultures together," Martinelli says. "And what is more cultural than food?"
The teahouse is a masterpiece of Persian art. From 1987 to 1990, more than 40 artisans in several cities of Tajikistan (which lies on Afghanistan's northeastern border and has Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and China on its borders) worked on the decorative elements of the building, including its hand-carved and hand-painted ceiling, tables, stools, columns, and exterior ceramic panels.
The teahouse arrived in Boulder in 200 crates. Several artisans who worked on the teahouse helped assemble it on the banks of a tributary of Boulder Creek.
The tiles on the outside are stunning, in traditional Persian motifs from nature, including stellar, solar, and floral patterns. The path to the entrance is beneath a grape arbor and is bordered with rose bushes.
Inside, it's hard to know where to look, there is such an abundance of color and design. The ceiling is painted in small, repetitive geometric and floral patterns in blue, green, and gold. Two intricately carved white plaster panels adorn one wall; between them hangs a tapestry in rich earth colors and circle patterns. Tall, slender columns in a light-colored wood are decorated with carved patterns from top to bottom.
In the center is the Fountain of the Seven Beauties, based on a classic Persian poem completed in 1197. Seven maidens surround a pool on which lily pads float lazily. Lush green plants and full-size trees add to the sense of other-worldliness.
On wooden tables, inlaid tiles, all in different patterns, serve as both decoration and coasters. Some tabletops are made entirely of colorful painted tiles. In two corners, raised platforms have floor pillows and a low table.
Martinelli says the teahouse is the only one of its kind in the Western Hemisphere. He also says it is the largest gift ever to the United States by the former Soviet Union.
We stopped in for afternoon tea. More than 80 varieties are offered, and the menu explains the origin and properties of each. We sampled mango-flavored Ceylon iced tea, an Earl Grey, and an excellent decaf chai. From the food menu we selected a samosa, an artichoke purse (puff pastry with artichoke cream filling), rice pudding, and gingerbread with five-spice whipped cream.
The teahouse is open seven days a week for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner. It also serves brunch on Saturday and Sunday, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Martinelli, who runs Naropa Cafe at Naropa University in Boulder, was the successful bidder when the city asked for proposals for the teahouse. His plan called for a full-scale, affordable restaurant emphasizing teas and ethnic cuisine. Though he changes the menu seasonally, two Tajik staples have stayed: lamb shish kebab and plov, a rice dish with beef, onion, carrots, and chickpeas.
"In Tajikistan," he says, "men make the plov and women make everything else."
Martinelli believes strongly in traditional ethnic cuisine, using ingredients and preparation methods that natives would use. "It's definitely not fusion," he says.
Though he has never visited Tajikistan, Martinelli has hosted several delegations of Tajiks, who aren't shy about giving advice. "They're eager to tell me what I'm doing wrong," he says with a laugh.
Boulder's sister city program is raising money for a reciprocal gift of a restaurant to Dushanbe. After much discussion about what would best represent the people and culture of Boulder, the group settled on a cyber-cafe. A site has been selected, and construction is expected to begin soon. Martinelli plans to write a cookbook to accompany the gift.
Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse, 1770 13th St., Boulder, Colo., 303-442-4993, www.boulderteahouse
.com. Breakfast $5-$8, lunch $7-$14, dinner $9-$18, weekend brunch $5-$10.