Thursday, May 13, 2010

Persian in the South Bay

Okay, it may be "politically incorrect" to say "Persian", but that's what the people of Iran call their food.  One must admit it sounds better than "Iranian?"   Besides the fact that Persian food is fantastic, hugely underrated and majorly underrepresented in the realm of ethnic eating,  I found myself in the company of my oldest friend Amy, in a hotel in Millbrae, overlooking the airport tarmac and wondering what to eat in the South Bay.  Amy was in town from upstate New York for a conference and had invited me to hang for a couple of days.  Back in our twenties, she dated a Persian guy for many, many years, and one of my earliest ethnic food memories was having an incredible plate of cherry rice and lamb kebabs at a hole in the wall restaurant near his home way out in the bum-f&*k inland empire (socal).  Having lived in Rochester for the last 20 or so years, Persian was Amy's first choice (and being from Southern California,  Mexican was her second).

My quick search on the SFGate site yielded 8 results, Shalizaar got 2 stars and was just "down the block" in Belmont.  It looked only a mile or two away by my google maps estimate, but of course I didn't look at the mileage scale at the bottom... 
First though, we needed to get a much needed happy hour drink so we cruised down the road to the Elephant Bar, a place recommended by the very nice valet at the Westin.  A packed parking lot gave us a glimpse of what was in store:  A bar full of every 20 something office worker from South San Francisco to San Mateo.  This definitely was not our scene and although the place looked "interesting", serving Asian inspired fare with a tropical drink list as long as my arm, we could barely think over the din, let alone find an empty seat.  Instead, we settled on a much quieter Kinkaid's a mile or two down the road and a pretty damn good Bloody Mary set me on the right track to get my tastebuds going.
Armed with a bottle of 2006 Quintessa (I have friends in high places), we hopped over to El Camino Real, the main artery connecting all of the South Bay towns (besides the freeway of course) and proceeded south for serveral miles, finally finding the restaurant.  I have to say I was relieved in advance to find the exterior rather large and ornate, as I just wouldn't have felt right bringing a bottle of Q to a hole in the wall, you know what I mean?

In true Persian style, the place resembled a palace inside, with a large, ornate chandelier greeting us, high ceilings, arches and spaciousness.  It smelled terrific and I could hardly wait to sink my teeth into any of the wide range of kebab dishes on the menu.  They also had rice dishes with stews of this sort and that, and a nice array of appetizers, including fresh herbs with feta and housemade lavash.  Similar to Indian naan, the lavash is done in a special oven and comes out nice and soft, perfect for stuffing things into, lapping up sauces, folding like a taco.  We were happy the fresh herb, feta and walnut basket (Sabzi) were part of the standard bread service, (as we had intended on ordering it), so we ordered the cucumbers with Persian yogurt (Mast-o-Khiar), popped that bottle of Quintessa and got down to business. 

Chicken kebabs, lamb kebabs, beef tenderloin marinated in yogurt, ground beef kebabs, a combination plate,  what to order? Amy promptly asked out waiter if they had "cherry" rice. A big fat "no" was the answer.  No hesitation, just "no, we don't have that today".  Awwwhhh what a disappointment.  Really, he wasn't even going to ask the chef?  Cherry rice is considered a specialty made with dried cherries and compliments the meats from this region with a splash of sweetness.  Well, we would have to do with their standard rice, a saffron and butter infused Persian basmati,  grains of goodness to mix with the yogurt, meat chunks, herbs...

I chose a combination of yogurt marinated tenderloin kebab and ground lamb kebab.  Amy got the ground beef and ground chicken.  For the uninitiated, ground meats are the mainstay of the kebab in the middle east.  Shalizaar does offer the more familiar "Shish Kebab", skewered with onions and bell peppers, but are nothing like the overly-chewy skewers of meat, bell peppers, tomatoes and sometimes (eeghads) pineapple that our Mom's experimented with back in the 70's, when Julia Child and Graham Kerr ruled the airwaves. The menu provided the option to do half rice and half salad.  I wished I had paid attention to the large mounds of rice on the tables around us, as the half salad option would have been the better route and give us a few more shards of fiber to round out the meat and carbs.  Not to complain, because when the familiar plate of kebab over rice with a roasted tomato (for chopping up and eating with each bite) arrived, Amy and I barely looked up as we ate and drank our way past all of the years that had passed between our first Persian meal together.  The richness of the Bordeaux style blend went surprisingly well with our food.  The tenderloin marinated in yogurt was as soft as butter, with a slight piquant from the yogurt, and layers of slightly scented cumin, coriander and cardomom rounding out the perfectly cooked chunks.  The lamb kebab was all I ever hoped for, a nice gamey-ness, perfectly seasoned, and cooked through but with no relation to a hockey puck whatsoever.

Huge plates of food still stood before us as we raised the white flag.  Of course I couldn't let things go to waste, as Amy still had another conference to go to and I had the inkling that cold rice, meat and flatbread would actually not be such a bad mid day snack after the hotel gym. 

Way too full for dessert, my dear friend was quick to ask for "tea".  A standard black concoction that is traditionally drunk by sucking on a sugar cube and letting the tea dissolve the cube as it washes over your tongue.  A sweet end to a great meal, and another memory to add to the long list we have compiled between us.
300 El Camino Real
Belmont, CA 94002
(650) 596-9000