Iran, So Far Away
I grew up with a good friend, Frank, whose family was from Iran. We were inseparable. Whenever we had time off from school I´d spend entire days at his house listening to Cobain and Hendrix, playing Nintendo, and eating the incredible Persian food his mother prepared. When you´re young just about any food your own mother doesn´t cook for you is alien, but I remember waiting for his mom to serve me a plate of fesenjon -- hearty, stewed chicken coated in a bittersweet pomegranate-walnut sauce -- like she was about to hand me a 5-gallon bucket of chocolate. It´s been 13 years since I had a home-cooked meal at Frank´s house, but I´ve still got the taste of his momma´s fesenjon pounded into my food memory banks like it was coded in my DNA. God forbid that someday I´m 80 and sitting in a Boca nursing home gumming puréed vegetables between sponge baths, but if that day comes I can assure you that even then I´ll still be craving that dish. So when I saw that two Persian restaurants had opened in Broward County within months of each other, I thought, ¨I really need to call Frank.¨ Then, immediately: ¨I wonder if either of them serves fesenjon?¨
And why not now for the Persian revolution? The fare is just waiting to be rediscovered by the casual and the haute, the healthy and the, well... not so healthy. Iranian dishes swell with big, bright, simple flavors -- saffron, turmeric, garlic, onion, lemon, black pepper -- and are familiar enough -- kebabs, stews, flatbreads, heaps and heaps o´ rice -- to make any xenophobe feel at ease.
I started my Persian revival a couple of weekends ago at Darius Palace, a six-month-old restaurant south of Oakland Park Boulevard on Federal Highway. Just walking into the place you know a lot of work went into its design. Carvings of Persian warriors look down upon a sleek granite bar with shiny trim, and in the corner a piano player belts out tunes like ¨Rhapsody in Blue¨ and ¨As Time Goes By.¨ Between piano sets, a belly dancer flutters out to shake her hips around the dance floor. Above, ivory-colored pillars leap toward mahogany rafters, framing the gorgeous second-floor landing that overlooks the dining room. It´s a beautiful setup but here comes the caveat: at 8:30 on a Friday night, the landing´s veiled tables -- as romantic a spot as I´ve seen in a Lauderdale restaurant -- were closed off due to lack of customers. It´s a shame. I could see a whole lot of successful first dates taking place up there.
A meal at Darius begins convincingly, with fresh-baked flatbread called lavash and a traditional plate of herbs, cheese, and aromatics to wedge between the bread´s cellular layers. It was a nice start -- the mint and parsley exceedingly fresh and peppery, the cheese, a Persian equivalent of feta, creamier and less salty than the Greek stuff -- but the borani ($4.99) and baba ghanush ($5.99) allowed us a little more room to work with the lavash. Both were tasty, but the borani -- a spinach and yogurt dip that tasted like a mixture of Greek tzatziki and alouette cheese -- was a little rich, and the baba ghanush, though perfect in consistency, was overly bitter.
Then there´s the rice. Rice, as it is in many other cultures, is an all-important part of Persian cooking, so much so that each delineation of the stuff has its own name. Chelow is parboiled, then steamed, and sits in massive yellow and white piles next to skewered kebabs; tadig is the rice at the bottom of the chelow pot that crisps and hardens, and, oh boy, is that ever good with an unctuous stew poured on top; and polo is a steamed pilaf that´s been jeweled with beans or berries and an assortment of herbs. There are Atkins dieters who would fall into hyperglycemic shock just looking at all this starch, but I´m game. With our chelow: a bone-in Cornish hen kebab ($19.99), shish kebab of beef tenderloin ($17.99), and lamb kebab ($18.99). We also managed a plate of tadig, accompanied by -- wait for it now -- fesenjon ($18.99 entrée, $5.99 appetizer).
The hen was disappointing. Cooking chicken with bones intact usually produces a juicier, more flavorful piece of meat. That wasn´t the case here. The traditional marinade of onion, saffron, garlic, and black pepper was bold enough, but the pieces were overcooked without exhibiting any sort of satisfying caramelization on the surface. Just flappy skin wrapped around dry, lifeless pieces of meat.
The shish kebab came with fresh summer squash, peppers, and onions skewered on a spear of rosemary -- perfectly cooked, toothy in texture, and filled with herby fragrance. Everyone wanted seconds.
And then there was the fesenjon. It hit me hard -- like a salty kiss from a lost lover, and just as sweet. The pomegranate juice had reduced and thickened with the walnuts to produce a layered wave of citrus and berries, followed by a rich, meaty bite from the chicken. It was by far the best dish I had eaten at the restaurant, and I was disappointed that my friends thought so too, because within minutes it was gone.
After dinner we tried zolobia and bamia ($3.95): a cold funnel-cake slicked with rosewater and honey, and a fried ball of dough soaked in the same sweet sauce (the bamia was very similar to the Indian dessert gulab jamun). The dessert -- like the servers and staff -- was so sweet that we left feeling wholly satisfied despite a few dry kebabs.
If Darius Palace looks Persian, then Kuluck Persian Restaurant & Lounge feels like it. On our Friday night visit the white-tablecloth supper club was like a scene straight out of My Big Fat Persian Wedding. A belly dancer was weaving her way around the velvet-lined room, grabbing youthful hipsters, men in business suits and their elegantly coifed wives, and wildly emotive children by the hands and leading them to the main stage to join her in dance, while modern Persian music -- with big beats and poppy vocals, a far cry from stereotypical ethnic tunes -- blared too loudly for table conversation. On Saturdays the owners turn off the prerecorded sounds and hop on stage to play a set by themselves (the trio of partners originally envisioned the restaurant as a venue for their band, Dima). The whole place just feels authentic -- not like an amalgam of how Iran might have looked a few dozen centuries ago but how Iran is today.
The food definitely fits that description as well, although the menu was a bit wanting. For starters, I´d set my heart on grilled marinated chicken wings ($7.95), which sounded like a nice mix of old world and new, but they were plumb out of it (couldn´t they have warned us when they handed out the menus?). So we looked toward an order of khashke bademjan ($5.95) and some lavash to hold us over until our koobideh ($10.95), jooje kebab ($12.95), and baghali polo ($13.95) arrived.
The lavash was underwhelming on its own -- it had the sort of gummy texture and flavor you´d expect from store-bought flour tortillas. But it was mild enough to serve as a transport for our bademjan. Smoky, roasted eggplant was mashed up with garlic and cumin, served hot, and finished with a nose-tickling drizzle of mint oil and creamy kashk (yogurt-like whey). Simply put: awesome.
Our entrées proved equally successful. The jooje was a skewer of marinated chicken breast -- broiled crisp and brown yet saturated with saffron-infused juices; the koobideh, a strip of ground beef with an earthy bite of onions, garlic, and turmeric (each served with chelow, charred tomatoes, and raw onion). A braised lamb shank accompanied a pilaf of lentils and dill in my baghali polo, the meat so tender it fell apart with the slightest flick of my fork. Everything was washed away lovingly by a bowl of Persian ice cream ($4.95), crisp with the flavor of rosewater and pistachio.
Kuluck´s food, ambiance, and entertainment all felt well-thought-out -- like it was put together with a specific vision of home. But I did have one other glaring problem with the menu: It´s virtually identical to all the other Persian menus I´ve seen in South Florida, including the one at Darius: some appetizers, kebabs, a few meat-based stews, and some rice dishes. That´s a surprising lack of depth for a cuisine with 6,000 years of history to draw upon. This chef definitely has the chops, so where´s the khoroshte goosht morgh, bamiyeh, and ghaarch; the aash reshteh, chickpea and lamb dumplings, or meat donuts? Aren´t Persians all over Broward lamenting, ¨Oh bother, kebabs again?¨ After all, if we never learn to experience variety, how can we possibly learn to appreciate a cuisine so much it becomes part of our collective food memory?
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