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Food: Iranians in the know know Persepolis

By John Kessler
The Atlanta Journal and Constitution
October 6, 2000

Think of rice. Great rice. Rice that's exactly as it should be.

If you're Japanese, you'll probably see it patted into a bowl, plump and pearly, stuck together without being sticky. If you're Italian, you may imagine a wet spoonful of risotto.

But if you're Persian, you expect a miracle --- an unreal mound of snowy fluff where each grain is long and slender and separate. And if you're Persian, you know where to find it.

Such great rice flows from the kitchen at Persepolis, a newcomer to Roswell Road's cluster of Persian restaurants. Great heaps of it sidle up to char- edged beef kebabs and soak up the seasoned juices of stewed white peas and eggplant. Elegant basmati grains may arrive studded with candied orange peel and almonds in one dish, fried to a crunch in saffron butter in another.

This food has evidently captured the fancy of Atlanta's Iranian ex-pat community. Go at lunch, when there's a leviathan buffet, and everywhere you'll see people tapping shoulders and greeting each other in a warm rush of Farsi. You'll also see a few non-Iranians stuffing their faces, thrilled to have found such a gem.

Owner Ali Mesghali, whose first attempt as a restaurateur was with the underpopulated Shamshiri, has a winner this time. This cheerful young man, who looks like a swarthy Matthew Broderick, knows how to blend a surefire cocktail of skillful cooking and good value with just enough warmth and formality in the front of the house. He knows how to deliver a dining experience.

While the name of the restaurant refers to the ancient capital of the Persian Empire, in the south of modern-day Iran, the cooking here is the same Teherani style you will find at just about any other Persian restaurant in the country. The menu encompasses kebabs, khoreshts (long-simmered stews) and mixed rice dishes, few of which will offend the sensibilities of even the most ethno-phobic palates. Vegetarian selections are plentiful.

Every meal begins with a freshly baked flatbread called taftoun --- a crackly, warm welcome mat that you fold with butter and fresh herbs (basil and mint here) and munch with radishes. Persians order feta cheese, but the dry, salty feta served here is a skippable snooze.

As at every Persian restaurant, the cold salads and dips that are typical side dishes to a meal play the role of appetizers for Westerners. And here's where the real fun begins. Get a combo platter and a second loaf of taftoun, and scoop away. Go right to the good kashk-o-bademjan, a warm eggplant mash mellowed with golden onions, soured with yogurt whey and given dimension with fried mint.

There are two yogurt dips: musto-mooseer combines cool yogurt with the warm presence of sun-dried shallots, while musto-khiar is the more familiar combination of yogurt and cucumber. The dolmeh (stuffed grape leaves) are like none you've had, with their sweet-and-sour flavor wine vinegar and pomegranate syrup. Only the overmarinated shirazi salad --- a dice of tomatoes, cucumbers and onions --- comes up short. It doesn't have the citrusy sparkle it should.

Yet the kitchen does a particularly fine job with the khoreshts, or stews. Ghormeh sabzi, which can be a watery sludge in other Persian restaurants, is lush and elemental here. Dice-size cubes of melting beef and shiny-creamy kidney beans arrive in a green blanket of herb sauce, the pungencies of parsley and fenugreek whittled down to their sweet essences. Khoresht bademjan features beef, strips of eggplant and Persian white peas in a tangy tomato gravy that seems very happy to sink into the vast, downy bed of rice on my plate.

Among the mixed rice dishes, shireen polo has all the prestige. This special holiday concoction includes strips of candied orange peel, fried almonds and dried barberries (like tiny cranberries), as well as pieces of chicken buried in its depths. I like it, but have to admit I find more succor in the simpler adas polo, containing lentils and raisins.

Most Persians are lured by the kebabs, which are good. Chelo kebab-e- kubideh is Iran's answer to kofte --- ground beef flavored with onion and spice, then mounded in a rippling pattern over a wide metal skewer. Chelo kebab-e-barg brings flat pieces of rare tenderloin that are long marinated and lightly charred. Both come with traditional garnishes of rice, a grilled tomato and a shaker of lemony sumac powder. If you're hard-core, ask for a raw egg yolk to stir into the rice.

And if you consider no ethnic dining adventure complete without one sensation that goes beyond your experience, end with a big bowl of faloudeh, frozen noodles made from cornstarch and rosewater over which you squeeze a cut lime.

It's dessert. Wormy squiggles that melt on your tongue with that seesawing balance of sweet and sour --- the leitmotif of every Persian meal --- finally tipping to the sweet side to signal the end.


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