It's hard not to become swept up in the romance of Persian cuisine. Just browsing through a good restaurant's menu, with its chicken in pomegranates and walnuts, its rice cooked with orange peel and almonds, is like reading the Song of Solomon or The Thousand and One Nights.
Problem is, menus like these are hard to find. There are a handful of Persian restaurants in the East Bay. Many, like the eighteen-month-old Shiraz in San Ramon, specialize almost exclusively in kebabs. Kebabs we know.
Familiarity doesn't necessarily breed contempt, though. Shiraz's beefity-beef "Soltani" combo platter comes with one koobideh, a long rod of ground beef, as thick as the handlebar on your bike, that's been molded around the skewer and grilled. Just beef mixed with ground onions and salt, koobideh is simple in concept. But when you're mixing three of the most primordially flavorful ingredients in the culinary repertoire, beef, onions, and salt are enough to blow out your umami sensors. Likewise, the other kebab on the plate, a thin slab of filet called barg, is brushed in a potent marinade of onion juice and lemon, and slices easily with a butter knife.
In the United States, kebabs are an easy sell. Diners at Shiraz range from Persian families to post-retirement white couples and feeding packs of tech execs. Some of them looked like the sight of a dried lime or a barberry might cause them heart palpitations.
The decor certainly won't: A clean, comfortable restaurant, rose-colored and well lit, it is decorated with photorealist paintings and woven portraits.
The small appetizer section of Shiraz's menu includes a few pan-Middle Eastern spreads, but for the most authentic start, begin with paneer sabzi, the Iranian equivalent of bread and butter. The waitress brings to every table a towel-lined basket of warm lavash bread, thin as a tortilla and speckled with browned bubbles. For a few bucks extra, she'll add a dinner plate heaped high with a tangle of spearmint, cilantro, parsley, and green onions, with a cube of feta on one side and a small mound of shelled walnuts on the other. You pluck a few things off the plate, roll them in the small lavash squares, and nosh -- the aromatic greens and tart cheese wake up the palate instead of filling up the stomach before your meal arrives.
Each kebab platter comes with rice, a standard-issue green salad, or both. A few spoonfuls of saffron-hued grains crown the piles of toothsome, flavorful rice. For an extra fillip, tart dried barberries are added to the rice in the zareshk polo, where they accompany an overcooked chicken-breast kebab. The tough, dry beef in the gormeh sabzi, one of Shiraz's two stews, didn't cook long enough. We set it aside, focusing instead on the aromatic, slightly tart stew of kidney beans, herbs, and dried limes (you can order a vegetarian version of the stew).
In Fremont, closer to the heart of the Bay Area's South Asian territory, there's a year-old Persian restaurant that dares to stray beyond the realm of grilled meat. A little tip about Mariam: Arrive early -- the restaurant closes at seven on weekdays, a fact we discovered after arriving at eight. Luckily, although one of the owners was ready to call it a night, his wife and co-owner took pity on us.
Mariam's menu comes closer to that of Los Angeles Persian restaurants, a broader mix of appetizers, salads, stews, and kebabs. Its food doesn't have quite the same vibrancy as the dishes I've eaten in Westwood and Glendale -- there's a reason they call it Tehrangeles -- but, boy, is Mariam the best Persian restaurant I've tried up north.
Diners start off with a free plate of paneer and sabzi, which includes raw white onions and butter instead of walnuts. We supplemented the bread and herbs by using our lavash squares to scoop up bites of mast-o-musir, a thick, tangy housemade yogurt stirred together with mild elephant garlic, and wolfed down a bowl of assh reshteh, a hearty soup of mixed pulses, noodles, and fried onions.
Glasses of hot tea perfumed with rosewater and a tart, fizzy drink of soda water, unsweetened yogurt, and dried mint arrived next. Then came the tahdig. Tahdig is the Cadillac of rice -- the crunchy, buttery crust on the bottom of the pot. Sometimes, as at Mariam, the cooks pour an egg over top and fry the tahdig like a fritter, topping the crisp pancake with a stew such as the gheymeh bodemjan, beef with tomatoes, split peas, and dried limes.
If Shiraz's kebabs were good, Mariam's were better. It was all in the cooking: A thick koobideh had been pressed around the skewer loosely enough that its moist texture was almost spongy. Every time we sliced into it more juices emerged. Just as tender was the barg, a long, thin slice of filet mignon, and you could clearly taste the dusky wash of saffron on both the barg and the joojeh, a chicken-breast kebab whose flavor livened up with a squirt of the half-lemon set next to it on the plate.
Each of the entrées came with an oval plate mounded dauntingly high with rice. Because we arrived at the restaurant past closing time, I don't want to write off Mariam's rice, but it had softened to Uncle Ben's consistency. The Persians approach rice much the same way Italians do pasta: It's not just a sponge for the sauce -- it's got to have character. You should be able to chew it properly, the grains coated in a slight slickness from oil. Rice was the one thing that Shiraz did more successfully than Mariam.
We complemented the kebabs with two house specials: Baghali polo with lamb shank paired rice -- mixed with lima beans and chopped fresh dill -- with lamb basted in a buttery, saffron-tinged broth. The meat came off the shank in soft, rich shards, its sauce too mild to impart much flavor. But the fesenjoon, Iran's own mole, was so good it didn't even need the tender chicken breast it coated. The thick, purplish-brown sauce, whose core was pureed walnuts and pomegranate, was rich enough for a pasha.
The space, with its scuffed dark-wood paneling, is pure hole-in-the-wall, but the owners have fleshed it out with white tablecloths, good napkins, thick water goblets, and great service. Not only did our server let us eat, but she checked in on us regularly, made good menu suggestions, and brought us a free baklava, all in exchange for a promise that none of us would be able to keep. "You must come back soon," she said, "but for business lunch."
Both Shiraz and Mariam serve a dessert called faloodeh, a frozen granita containing hair-thin, transparent noodles, all doused heavily with rosewater. The taste may be sugar, plain and simple. But like the rest of their food, the scent is pure poetry.
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