On a rainy afternoon, one might find a fire popping and crackling in the dining room at the Flaming Torch (737 Octavia St., 504-895-0900; www.flamingtorchnola.com). With walls covered in landscapes and abstract paintings by owner Zohreh (pronounced "Zoree") Khaleghi, the space looks like a French bistro packed itself up and relocated to a private collector's showroom.
In this eclectic restaurant, Khaleghi is a proud gallerist and artist, as well as owner, part-time maitre d' and occasional chef.
"I love cooking; it's my passion," she says. "[I think] anything you've created is art. They give you something that's nothing by itself, and you mix it together, and you create something. That's art."
Khaleghi embraces the creative aspects of restaurant work. She left her native Iran at 16 to study political science in Europe, while cultivating a passion for the arts. In addition to her internationally known drawing and painting work, she writes and translates poetry and publishes her own multilingual magazine.
Her canvases enhanced her husband Hassan's former businesses, including the Moonlight Cafe. The pair opened the Flaming Torch in 2004 with Hassan at the helm, while Khaleghi consulted on everything from the menu to the diamond-bright chandeliers. Hassan ran the business until he passed away last year after an illness.
"[After his passing], I thought, 'I need to just give whatever I love up for a couple of months and come to be my husband,'" Khaleghi says. "I'm doing his legacy. I want to keep his restaurant, or whatever he had before, the same, or maybe much better," she says.
With its French menu and artistically charged ambiance, the restaurant blends old-school Uptown tastes with a cosmopolitan sensibility. Guests seeking escargots or coq au vin can taste classic Continental dishes tweaked by chef Jessica Smith, or they can stop by the bar for Pernod or Italian wine while chatting with the loquacious and personable Khaleghi. An impeccably outfitted dining area upstairs, renovated by the owner herself, suits large groups and private parties.
Khaleghi thinks of Flaming Torch as a neighborhood place. She loves the walkable blocks around Napoleon Avenue and Magazine Street, as well as the regulars who come in to dine or just to catch up. Her work in philanthropy, including donating her art to auctions at places like Children's Hospital, has made her well-known in the area.
She'll further establish the restaurant as a neighborhood fixture with its new breakfast offerings. On Saturdays and Sundays, the Flaming Torch will open from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. to serve weekend morning fare like pancakes and quiche alongside bloody marys and mimosas.
Kaleghi compares the restaurant, and dining itself, to a blank canvas that becomes barrier-breaking art.
"[With food], you give it to the people, and you connect with the people," she says.