Its been awhile since I visited a restaurant that the boyfriend couldnt stop himself from suggesting to go back
for practically every meal. That place is Shalizaar in San Mateo, and my torment began several months ago. Epicurious in Fremont raved about Shalizaar several months ago, so we decided to check it out.
The décor is very white tablecloth with some nice wood library-like areas. The one thing out of place is that next to the hosts desk, they have the iconic portly Italian chef plastic statue. Also, (secret #1?) try to find the small fake bird in the tree branch in the waiting area just because. Saturday nights Ive found the place to be packed, with at most a five minute wait for two people.
Each table gets a basket of lavash bread along with a basket of herbs (cilantro, mint, and basil), feta, and walnuts. Im not exactly sure if this is what Im supposed to do, but I roll up mini burritos of these ingredients with the bread. The menu refers these ingredients as, herbs grown in Los Altos Hills, which is sweet since I assume thats the location of the owners home. Its a nice beginning to the meal.
BIG FIND #1
The first big find was the tah dig appetizer ($6.95). I havent had a good rendition of this dish since my favorite Persian restaurant, Khayyam in Berkeley, closed. Tah dig consists of the crunchy bottom of the rice pot topped with a stew, and Shalizaars crunchy rice bottom has just the right crunchiness. Weve tried all four stews in the course of our visits. Gheymeh was our overall favorite, which the menu states is composed of tender lean beef, yellow peas, tomato sauce, and potato sticks. Although I didnt see the potato sticks, the stew was hearty and tasty, and not watery like other versions Ive had. The Gheymeh Bademjan is practically the same as the Gheymeh but includes eggplant. Our third favorite stew is the Ghormeh Sabzi, and consists of stewed beef, kidney beans, sautéed herbs, and spinach. We also tried the Fesenjan which the menu says is composed of a roasted leg of chicken, ground walnuts, and pomegranate juice. Our version didnt have the promised roasted leg of chicken, although that might only be in the meal-size portion. I like a good Fesenjan, but I know others who dont. Their Fesenjan is a completely smooth blend with no textural contrast, and the taste is just too cloying and strong.
I forgot to mention the second best part of the Tah Dig the size. This platter was easily big enough to serve as an entrée. We generally order this and an entrée and have one of more days of leftovers. And the third best part is that you can order one or more stews (which isnt obvious from the menu). My favorite is to get half Gheymeh, half Ghormeh Sabzi.
On our first visit we tried the Barg entrée ($15.95), which is our standard Persian food order. The menu describes it as lightly marinated filet mignon, and while it was good it was nowhere near the meat tenderness and quality of Pomegranate in Berkeley. However, the accompanying rice dusted with saffron did in fact, rock. Our friends started with one of the salads (the Salad Shirazi I believe), but were not nearly as excited with their starter as we were with the Tah Dig.
The other Persian entrée we always order is Zereshk Polo ($11.95), which consists here of barberry rice (we always call it rice mountain) with a roasted chicken leg. The chicken was buried *under* the rice mountain (a first!) and was moist but just okay. The rice was studded with tart barberries but lacked complexity. It needed the plethora of ingredients found in Pomegranates version (pistachios, orange peel, etc.).
On our next visit we decided to try a different polo (mixed rice) entrée and chose the Shirin Polo ($12.95), which is listed as having the same chicken leg but with sweet pistachio, almond, and orange peel rice. The first bites of the rice were amazing, with nuggets loaded with flavor. However, several bites in, the rice became almost overwhelmingly sweet. It also doesnt meld as well with the chicken. I wonder if both polos put together would make the ideal rice. Overall I still liked it a lot and slightly prefer this version to the Zereshk Polo.
BIG FIND #2
We noticed the menu mentioned that you could have any rice with any meat, so we requested chicken breast in place of the chicken leg. They ended up charging us an extra $5. It was a bargain for what my boyfriend declared was the best chicken hed ever tasted. It was unbelievably moist and yellow and marinated and bursting with flavor. This was our second big find.
The service was efficient and very helpful answering questions. I liked how accommodating the restaurant is in offering substitutions (theyre printed on the menu as well). I didnt try the desserts, but they range in price from $2 to $4.50 and include Faloodeh, Zoolbia Bamieh (Persian pastries), and Bastani Nooni which sounded like a Persian ice cream sandwich. Awesome.
Im already inundated with requests from my boyfriend to visit Shalizaar again. As a testament to how much he likes it, we might just go there for his birthday in a few weeks. Maybe Ill see if some of my candles will fit in a Persian ice cream sandwich.
My Ranking of Bay Area Persian Restaurants
1. Khayyams Albany (the master now closed - against which all Persian restaurants will forever be judged)
2. (tie) SHALIZAAR
2. (tie) Pomegranate Berkeley, Walnut Creek, Concord (great barg and joojeh kabob with zereshk polo; pomegranate chicken is good but sweet taste can be cloying)
4. Rose Market Mountain View (rated so highly because of the value; need to re-evaluate because I only had a small sample of food)
5. Yas San Jose (really impressive selection of polos but other food is just OK)
6. Bijan Fremont (food too oily, and stews either too sweet or too ketchup-y)
Visited and have trouble remembering, but not near the top of the list:
Kabob House Pleasant Hill
Papas - Berkeley
120 W. 25th Ave.
San Mateo, CA 94403
(The website pictures make the food look sickly.)
Tues. Sun. 11 a.m. 10 p.m.