Ten hounds joined together for the penultimate event of Limsterfest: Persian food under the guidance of the lovely Fatemah at Alborz (1245 Van Ness Ave. @ Sutter, 415-440-4321).
Even though I arrived at 7:55 for an 8:00 dinner, I was the last to arrive and as is tradition, was assigned notetaking duties -- that's what I get for taking to opportunity of being early to bounce on a few beds in the mattress stores on Van Ness.
When I arrived there was already a basket of lavash and a plates with raw onion, fresh herbs, feta cheese and butter to go with it -- I guess raw onions are okay if we're all eating them [g]. Soon after a schooner of yogurt and another of the classic diced tomatoes, cucumbers, etc. arrived -- a refreshing start to the meal.
As usual, we ordered everything family-style, sharing three appetizers: kashk bodemjan (roasted eggplant topped with crisp fried onions and garlic and mint and yogurt sauce) and two kinds of tah dig. Tah dig is crisp, crusty rice from the bottom of the pot and is served with various kinds of stew. The two versions we ordered were with ghorme sabzi: small pieces of meat with green herbs (Fatemah said parsley, but the menu says scallions, leeks and chives), kidney beans, fenugreek and mint; and gheymeh, with yellow lentils cooked in a light tomato sauce and a haunting touch of citrus from dried limes (I think this was my favorite of the appetizers).
Then we really tested the capacity of the table, mostly because each entree came with a separate plate of rice -- three different kinds! The Alborz plates (combo for two of filet mignon, chicken and ground beef kabobs) came with a gorgeous platter of basmati rice, as did the Fesenjoon (chicken swimming in a walnut pomegranite sauce). But the baghali polo with lamb shank (falling off the bone tender lamb in a light clear sauce) came with dilled rice, and the zereshk polo with baked chicken came with saffron rice with barberries (tart dried red berries similar to currents).
The kabobs came to the table emitting the primal, heady fragrance of grilled meat. The filet was tender and the chicken moist, but I thought both were a little bland. But the ground beef had a wonderful mildly spicy/grilled flavor. Fatemah instructed us to mash the roasted tomatoes into the rice to eat with the meat.
The big hit on my end of the table was the Fesenjoon in it's dark, soupy walnut-pomegranite sauce, combining sweet, tart, nutty, oily flavors. Fatemah said some people find it too sweet, but she could eat a whole bowl of it -- I think Limster and I agreed. There was some discussion about the fact that many Westerners seem to dislike fruit/meat combinations, even though the combination of pork with fruit is traditional in European cuisines.
Neither the lamb nor the baked chicken made much of an impression on me, but the rice dishes were stellar: I liked both the herbaceous dilled rice and the well-balanced tart-rich saffron-barberry rice (this is also an exceptionally pretty item, with the ruby red berries mixed into the canary yellow rice).
Finally, no meal with Limster is complete without dessert, and lots of it. We ordered all four of the desserts on the menu, and then went back and ordered extras of the table favorite: faloodeh (frozen rice noodles sweetened with rose water and sprinkled with lemon juice from a cruet). Although the texture was a unique mixture of chewy noodles and granita-like flavored ice, somehow it worked. The bastani (Persian ice cream flavored with rose water) was good but not compelling (although I think it has some fans at the other end of the table). I liked the baklava (made with pistachios) which had fewer filo layers and a thick, soft nut layer in the middle, which made in much moister and more tender than other versions I've had (ironically Fatemah said she prefers the Greek version with walnuts). We agreed the bamieh and zulbia (fried dough soaked in honey) were basically honey delivery vehicles.
With this dinner drank doogh (yogurt soda on the menu), a drink made of yogurt, dried mint, and soda water. We also had a Rhone red I had left over from our dinner at Helmand last fall (the bottle got whisked way, but according to the cork it was a Domaines O&H Bour, 26 Roussas, vin eleve et mis en bouteille, par le vigneron recoltant -- 1997 IIRC). It was a little sharp on opening but mellowed in the glass and went well with the food. Tea for all finished off this feast.
We were astonished to find that the bill came to just a little over $21/person (including tax and a 15% service charge -- as far as I could tell they didn't charge us corkage on the wine).
But now that I count dishes, I see we averaged half an appetizer, slightly less than a full entree, and about half a dessert apiece. Portions are generous, especially the Alborz plate, which is supposedly for two but could easily feed three of four with a couple of appetizers. The rich complex flavors are also very satisfying.
Thanks to Fatemah for putting this together and guiding us through her native cuisine, and thanks to all the other hounds for being, as usual, such wonderful dinner companions.