A Taste of Persia in Los Angeles

A Taste of Persia in Los Angeles ...
blogs.barrons.com 08/06/2016 Cuisine

Keywords:#Africa, #Armenian, #Asia, #Beverly_Hills, #Blogs.barrons.com, #Google, #Iran, #Iranian, #Isfahan, #Lauren_R._Rublin, #Life, #Los_Angeles, #Middle_East, #Nowruz, #Persia, #Persian, #Saba, #Shah, #Shah_Abbas, #Tehrangeles, #Westwood_Boulevard

By Lauren R. Rublin
Persian cuisine is among the most savory of Iran’s exports, and one of the best places to sample its herb-and fruit-laced dishes is Los Angeles, home to hundreds of thousands of Iranian refugees. When I arrived in L.A. in late March, on the eve of Nowruz, the Persian new year, the restaurants were filled with merrymakers and ceremonial displays featuring baskets of wheatgrass, bowls of painted eggs, and other symbols of birth and renewal. Spring—and the scent of seasoned, grilled meats—were in the air.
A meal at Raffi’s Place in Glendale, Calif., begins with sabzi-khordan – a plate of fresh vegetables and herbs. Photo: Lauren Rublin for Barron’s

* * * My first gastronomical stop was Raffi’s Place, a large, airy restaurant in Glendale, a Persian Armenian enclave, which had been recommended by a Persian friend. It offered an excellent introduction to the multi-faceted flavors of Persian cooking, which borrow from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Our meal began, as many Persian meals do, with baskets of warm nan, or flatbread, and bowls of sabzi-khordan—fresh mint, radishes, onions, and herbs. Following our waiter’s instructions, we buttered the bread and rolled up wrap-style the vegetables and mint sprigs. It would be hard to imagine a fresher, more spring-like starter.
Next came an assortment of appetizers, which our party of five family members devoured, savoring in particular the kashk o’bademjan—a rich, fried eggplant and tomato stew topped with whey and served on a bed of caramelized onions. We also sampled our first tadig, a delicious disk of rice with a crispy crust that forms on the bottom of the pan, while the rice is cooking. Rice, prepared dozens of ways, is central to Persian cooking, and several varieties soon arrived at our table, including platters topped with saffron-flavored, Day-Glo orange-colored grains. But the albaloo polo—rice mixed with pitted cherries—stole the show, both for its delightfully pinkish hue and the juicy fruits that delivered a pop of sweetness with each mouthful of basmati.
Raffi’s main courses were a mixed bag. The chicken kabob was dry and bland, and the gheimeh bademjan, a beef, eggplant, and split-pea stew, left a medicinal aftertaste. But a succulent lamb shank, smothered in fava beans, dill, and rice, was irresistible. The carnivores at the table emptied the plate, down to the last dill frond, and used what was left of the nan to wipe up the meat juices. We finished the meal with fragrant slabs of rosewater ice cream, while wondering aloud how something can taste exactly like a flower’s smell. Our meal came to $44.16 per person.
My friend Saba, whose family left Iran about 20 years ago, advised me to make a Persian feast the only meal of my day, given the quantity of the food and its tendency toward heaviness. She also urged me to visit Flame, one of several nicely appointed Persian eateries on a stretch of Westwood Boulevard known as Tehrangeles, a portmanteau favored even by Google Maps.
Although the dining room was nearly filled when I arrived with a friend, we managed to secure a table by the window that allowed me to keep one eye on the street action and the other on the tanoor, a round tiled oven that glowed in a distant corner. We demolished a plate of hot, pillowy nan pulled straight from the fire with metal hooks—and another, and another—reserving just enough to mop up a tangy appetizer of maust khiar, a yogurt and cucumber spread enlivened with fresh, chopped mint.
We split the koobideh combo—two lengthy skewers of ground, spiced chicken and meat—and paired it with a large plate of adas polo—rice studded with raisins, lentils, saffron, and dates. The meat was meh—something had been lost in the grinding—but the rice, both savory and sweet, was nothing short of sublime. When we’d eaten enough, we picked the sugary dates out of what was left of the polo and washed them down with glasses of hot mint tea, just as I imagine Saba’s family must have done in their old home in Isfahan. Cost per person: $27.98.
In Food of Life, her comprehensive book on Iranian cooking and ceremonies, Najmieh Batmanglij writes of the “typically Persian” concept of duality, which balances light and darkness, sweet and sour, hot and cold. Might it also refer to gorgeously prepared foods served in dismal surroundings? I wondered as much as my friend Susan and I pulled into the parking lot of Beverly Plaza Center, a glamor-starved strip mall in West L.A., and climbed the stairs to Shah Abbas, a favorite haunt of a Persian friend of hers who lives in Beverly Hills. The restaurant’s interior wasn’t much to look at, either, but my attention was quickly redirected to our appetizers—a colorful plate of mixed olives, a bowl of chilled yogurt and shallots, and a verdant sabzineh, or salad of fresh basil, mint, tarragon, onion, and cucumber, with cubes of earthy feta cheese.
I was tempted to call it quits after the second course, a massive shirazi salad of chopped cucumber, tomatoes, and onions lightly bathed in lemon juice and olive oil. But then, I would have missed a perfectly charred beef shish-kebab and the tasty zereshk polo, chicken with barberry rice. The tart, translucent red fruits of the barberry plant looked like little rubies on their bed of snowy rice. Suddenly, I saw them as a metaphor for Persian food itself, in all its mysterious, flavorful complexity—veritable jewel among the world’s cuisines.
And a bargain, considering the meal came to just $34.21 a head.
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