Restaurant food can be divided into two main categories. The first is that which you can make at home — maybe not as expertly or as quickly, maybe not served so elegantly, but still. The second is that which you cannot, because it's so lustrously, almost ludicrously rich, evoking satin and cinnabar. See? Even its metaphors inhabit a rarefied world of precious minerals and royalty: In this case, shahs.
The food at Alborz does not pretend to be rustic or humble. It is not stuff you would wolf on a bus. It does not hunch bashfully on the plate but vamps, its glossy surfaces festooned with dazzling yogurt lightning-bolts, rubied with scarlet barberries, studded with nuts. Its silken kashk bademjan, a melt-in-the-mouth grilled-eggplant appetizer scattered with candylike crushed almonds, lolls in a reflecting pool of high-quality olive oil as if demanding to be venerated. Alongside house-specialty kabobs — some of which boast whole Cornish game hens — rise reefs of majestically fluffy, saffron-tinted, baked basmati rice that retains its integrity in the mouth, grain by perfectly hydrated grain.
This space was formerly a French bistro, and it retains that ambience: striped upholstery, moody maroon walls hung with metal fleurs de lis and a jaunty copper rooster. Phalanxes of wine bottles fill the south wall. A pale amber glow bathes dark tables that are numerous, and close, and so small that when the entrées arrive in their extra-large plates, flanked by oddly gigantic spoons, one feels like Alice in Wonderland, caught between too-tall and too-small.
Take your seat and a basket arrives promptly under whose linen napkin lies a generous stack of soft lavash: flatbread folded neatly into squares that look and feel like parchment envelopes. With this comes butter, thumb-sized raw onion wedges, and a ramekin of the thick yogurt-cucumber dip called mast-o-khiar, which can also be ordered as an appetizer. What to do with the butter and dip is obvious: the onions less so. Are they mere ornaments? No; they're mild, almost apple-sweet, but you wouldn't know that, because while servers at some other restaurants solemnly announce the names and functions of whatever they set before you, at Alborz they don't. Ask, and they'll tell you the bowl of powder resembling ladybug filings near your salt shaker is tart ground sumac berries, best sprinkled on kabobs. Don't ask, and you're on your own.
After leaving his native Iran at age seventeen, David Dornan settled in Sweden, where he got a footing in restaurant work. Emigrating to the US twenty years ago, he opened the first Alborz — named for a snowy northern Iranian mountain range — in Fremont.
"I'd realized by then that I'm good at this business," he says. "So I started from scratch." Through family connections, Dornan found and hired a talented chef: "an old man," he says fondly. "I got lucky." He opened a second Alborz in San Francisco, a third in Marin County. Two years ago, he opened a fourth, a half-block from both Berkeley BART and the UC campus. Today, he owns only the San Francisco and Berkeley Alborzes, though he recently purchased the Eclipse Cafe around the corner from the Berkeley Alborz on Allston Way at Oxford Street, which he plans to reopen soon with a new name, new logo, and new Italian menu.
On a Saturday night, Alborz is packed. Parties awaiting tables gyrate in the aisles as we order appetizers. Our hummus is velvety; our torshee — vinegar-pickled, chopped-vegetable relish — kicks like a mule. Persian food is a study in contrasts: not just crunchy and smooth, sour and sweet, raw and cooked, but operatically so, a wrenching sensual overdrive that even halfway through the first course has you almost sobbing.
But in a good way.
Lentils, soft little buttons, stud the warm rice-and-meat stuffing in the three dolmas arranged in a triangle around a lagoon of yogurt dip in which to dunk them. Kookoo sabzi, spinach quiche's proud Persian cousin, stands erect in cakelike wedges taller than they are wide, their drizzled-yogurt zigzags electric with garlic and dill.
The paneer sabzi is another of those what-do-I-do-with-this panic-inducers: Gorgeously, almost assaultively green mint, basil, and cilantro leaves, as big as poker chips and still moored to their stems, quiver six inches high on a platter ringed with walnuts and slabs of tomato, cucumber, and feta cheese. (Tuck plucked leaves and the rest inside folded lavash for spring-mountain freshness.) Then it's back to the velvet: aash reshteh, a thick, dilled spinach soup swimming with chickpeas, red beans, lentils, and long flat Iranian reshteh noodles, topped with a bright surprise that turns out to be a dollop of fried mint.
The lime-and-saffron-marinated chicken breast on Mel's joojeh kabob was piquant, its charms coaxed out yet further with a dusting of sumac — and it was achingly, consistently tender, evading kabob meats' dreaded tendency to dry out or to cook unevenly. Bijou was less happy with her gheymeh bodemjan, beef and split peas stewed in dried lime and tomato sauce. The lean beef's flavor, she concluded sadly, was overwhelmed by the strong, sweetish sauce. Onion, eggplant, pepper, and tomato pack a big, satiny veggie kabob which, as the only entrée on the menu lacking a Farsi name, pointedly evinces the fleshocentricity of Persian cuisine in general. But vegetarians need not starve for even a split-second at Alborz, given the appetizers and a remarkable, arguably miraculous, walnut-and-pomegranate stew called fessenjoon that can be ordered either with or without chicken. Tuffy calls it "Middle Eastern molé" for a fruit-nut earthiness that transcends itself, singing out the kind of subtlety that only advanced civilization can bring. Its flavors fan and fold, kaleidoscopic, on the tongue.
For dessert, we spooned makhlut out of parfait glasses: extra-rich Persian ice cream topped with sweet, palest-pink frozen rosewater, threaded with tiny, fine rice noodles. Up until this moment you would have scoffed: Noodle ice cream? Never. No way. But those contrasts: They grab you, and they lead you along, and you don't want to let them let go.
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