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Family legacy continues with Mediterranean Q-C restaurant
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Photo: John Greenwood
Ashkon Ajidh started a new business, Sultan Mediterranean Restaurant, at 3850 Blackhawk Road, Rock Island.
ROCK ISLAND - Ashkon Ajidh, owner of Sultan Mediterranean Restaurant at 3850 Blackhawk Road, knows a thing or two about warm climates. His parents originally hailed from Azerbaijan, and Mr. Ajidh spent his childhood in a number of nearby countries, including Turkey and Pakistan.

This isn't to say he was unfamiliar with seasons. Describing his native lands, he speaks of "beautiful green springs, sunny summers, falls when everything is yellow and nice, mild winters when it snows only two or three times."

Even so, the most striking difference between where he grew up and the Quad-Cities, where he has come to reside, is the snow. Describing the adjustment, Mr. Ajidh said his compatriots joke, "The first year, you like the snow. The second year, you are fine with it. And the third year, you are over it."

Mr. Ajidh may have been new to the area when he came to the Quad-Cities, but he was not new to the restaurant business: In each of the countries where his family has resided, his father has operated a restaurant. Opening Sultan was a way for Mr. Ajidh to continue that legacy.

But first, he had to figure out how to adapt the Persian dishes he wanted to offer to suit American tastes. In some cases, it was a question of logistics. Describing a favorite dish from home that involves duck, walnuts and pomegranate paste, Mr Ajidh paused and said, "You don't really get that paste around here." So, he said, you learn what you can make based on the herbs and spices that are available.

As he has adapted recipes, Mr. Ajidh has held to a very simple goal. "I try to give people a nice price and pleasing flavor," he said.

It's a strategy that seems to be working. Since opening in September 2011, Mr. Ajidh said, Sultan has developed a reputation for its gyros. "We cook them a little differently than other places. People like the taste," he said.

A traditional gyro sandwich, served in pita bread with tomato, onion and cucumber sauce, costs $5.99 at the restaurant. Other dishes range in price from $6.99 for flatbread pizzas to $7.99 for featured dishes such as steak shish kebabs and shevid baghali polo -- a rice dish containing dill and lima beans.

The restaurant has proven particularly popular with area vegetarians. Mr. Ajidh estimated 40 percent of his customer base is vegetarian. For every meat dish on the menu, he explained, there is a vegetarian option. One of his goals for the restaurant, in fact, is to show "vegetarian doesn't mean tasteless."

Another goal? "I like to have a warm environment for the restaurant," said Mr. Ajidh, which is part of the reason he recently renovated the space he is in to add a bar.

Having met his initial goals for the number of customers served at the restaurant, he began seeking ways to enhance their experience. Adding a bar, he said, has encouraged customers to linger a while and unwind. Whereas before they would generally eat their meals and leave, now they tend to stay a bit to enjoy a glass of wine or a bottle of beer and chat a bit, said Mr. Ajidh.

The bar, which Mr. Ajidh built himself with the help of friends and family as a New Year's project, runs the length of the restaurant along the wall separating the dining area from the kitchen. Several clocks hang on the wall, which Mr. Ajidh wants to set to times in different Mediterranean countries.

"It has made it cozier," said Mr. Ajidh. "People come and sit. They have their food and take their time." It's a change he enjoys, he said.

Drinks at Sultan range in price from $2.50 for domestic beers to $4 for premium mixed drinks.

The added opportunity the bar affords to interact with customers benefits Mr. Ajidh as well, who said running a restaurant keeps him very busy. "I get here early, leave late. There's always something to do -- running, prepping. You don't know how the time passes," he said.

He also keeps busy developing new recipes to add to the menu. Recently, he has been working to adapt a pasta sauce he hopes will be a popular new offering. It has peanuts in it. "That's a Persian touch," he said. "Persian people use a lot of nuts in dishes."

-- Location:Southwestern Asia, bordering the Caspian Sea, between Iran and Russia, with a small European portion north of the Caucasus range.

-- Population:9,493,600 (July 2012 estimate). No. 91 in the world.

-- Languages:Azerbaijani (Azeri) (official), 90.3 percent; Lezgi, 2.2 percent; Russian, 1.8 percent; Armenian, 1.5 percent; other, 3.3 percent; unspecified, 1 percent (1999 census).

Source: CIA World Factbook.

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