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Mideast meets west



Lamb gormeh sabzi, tahdig, and a glass of St. Francis wine at Shiraz Persian restaurant.

Shiraz' Persian feasts combines cuisines from the Old and New Worlds

There are those who contend that the roots of Mexican cuisine are not all they might seem. Think medieval Persia, specifically Baghdad, and the Islamic occupation of Spain. The conquistadors were intent upon imposing on Mexico the culinary traditions they knew, which had been shaped largely by Islam. Sugar, rice, saffron, citrus, olives, lamb, all were almost immediately imported, transposing the Mexican landscape, as much as possible, into a rustic version of Old World Spain. Even the form of the colonial kitchen, with its tiled counters inset with charcoal-burning braziers, was a direct copy of the kitchens of al-Andaluz.

What's equally interesting is to see how Persian cuisine itself is adapting to other influences, not the least of which, in tit-for-tat fashion, is Mexican. I refer specifically to Shiraz' bandary, consisting of chunks of sirloin in a spicy pomegranate sauce. (Remember that pomegranate seeds are an essential part of Mexico's chiles en nogada, and that pomegranates were brought to Mexico from Moorish Spain.) OK, the chiles used were Thai, but the effect is the same: a savory stew, at once tartly fruity and lightly spicy, served simply with one of those perfect rice sides, or, more accurately, foundations, since the making of perfect rice is considered essential to Persian cooking.

You'll want to warm up to this cultural crossover with an appetizer or two, and I can't think of two better examples than the kashk o' bademjan and the tahdig, especially since the chickpea-based hamous didn't live up to expectations due to lack of lemon and excess tahini. The kashk is a lush purée of roasted eggplant seasoned with a little saffron and topped with crisply fried shards of onion and garlic. You can simply spoon it up alone, but the most rational approach is to smear it on the pita that will be brought to the table along with some scintillatingly salty feta, sliced radish, and leaves of parsley and mint (some fresh and some not-so). Try it with a glass of sparkling Spanish cava from the surprisingly extensive wine list. And add to it tahdig, tersely described as crispy rice with ghaimeh, and you have a Middle Eastern feast without even venturing into the entrée section.

4230 McCullough
5-10pm Mon-Sat
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Tahdig's terse description is telling since this dish is almost emblematic of Persian cuisine: Its base is the desirable, crisp part of the rice left in the bottom of the cooking pot, and its top is a savory stew of beef tips with tomato. The combination is unexpectedly complex in both texture and taste, all the more meaningful since the appetizers tended to trump the entrées sampled on two additional levels: value and virtuosity. Not that I was exaggerating the virtues of the bandary, but at $16 it was more than double the price of the $6 tahdig and didn't necessarily deliver twice the punch. (This can frequently be said of the appetizer vs. entrée equation; Shiraz isn't being singled out.) Lamb gormeh sabzi, described as chunks of lamb in a parsley cilantro sauce, seems more traditional, remembering that cilantro came to the new world from the East through Spain. And it's more substantial, too. The pungent cilantro flavor cooks out, as it tends to do, but the result is pleasantly earthy-herbal, and the lamb is lean, tender, and cooked to the expected degree of not quite over-doneness. With it, try a big, fruity wine such as the 2001 St. Francis Old Vine Zinfandel.

Equally classic is the tachin, a dish in which rice, suffused with a tart saffron yoghurt sauce, plays much more than a supporting role. Though welcome, the slices of chicken breast layered into the rice can hardly be said to be the main attraction, yet this is an extremely satisfying dish, made humble largely by the saffron, a scattering of dried cranberries (where pomegranate seeds would seem to be more authentic) and the less-is-more combination of flavors. You will want a side salad.

By whatever spelling, tabboli is naturally there, but look to the tipped-in menu specials (alas, not priced) for a clue to the chef's leanings toward the contemporary cuisine of the West: Mangos are creeping into entrées, and balsamic vinegar is making an appearance with salads. As it did in our East-meets-West sesame salad composed of field greens in balsamic and sesame oil dressing with crumbled, spiced feta and toasted sesame seeds. Over-dressed, but not bad.

East and West combine again in Shiraz' Persian cheesecake, scented with orange blossom water, saffron, and cardamom. Cheesecake may not be the stuff of emperor Darius' court, but it's frankly exquisite. Some of the more traditional desserts aren't available since the family member that makes them has been in Iran for several months. But the rice flour pudding with pistachio and rosewater should satisfy any cravings for the unadulterated experience. The pudding isn't shy with rosewater or cinnamon, but it's a perfect way to end the evening in Shiraz' low-key interior, letting the strains of Persian music settle around you like so many veils. •

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