As you step in from the bumptuous North Beach street scene, the dining room's rosy-peachy cream walls, white tablecloths, black-and-white photos of Iran, mellow lighting, and soothing music provide immediate evidence of an advanced civilization. So does the long and, if you're not familiar with the cuisine, somewhat challenging menu.
As soon as you're seated, the server brings a small plate of sabzee panir, the mandatory starter of feta cheese garnished with raw herbs and vegetables such as mint, red basil, radish, and onion, along with a basket of warm pita bread. You just spread a little cheese on a bit of bread, garnish it with whatever looks good, and munch while you peruse the intriguing menu. Order more if you like, but refills aren't free.
There are several different approaches to dining at Maykadeh.
One way is to order a big spread of mazeh (appetizers), a great choice for vegetarians, since only a few of the 20-odd items contain meat. The dips are more or less familiar from other Middle-Eastern cuisines: mast-o-khier, for example, is thick, housemade yogurt with diced cucumber and a little mint what the Greeks call tzatziki. Mast-o-musir is similar, but flavored with earthy-tasting dried Persian shallot (the menu says "elephant garlic," but I'm sure that's a mistranslation). Kaske bademjan is a distant, richer cousin of baba ganoush: a very thick puree of roasted eggplant and kashk, a thick, cultured whey something like yogurt, flavored with garlic and mint. Hummus is hummus, fine but the least interesting of the dips. I wasn't thrilled by the dolmas, either. One very nice touch: As our pitas got cold and stiff, the server replaced them with fresh hot ones.
No longer on the menu and not always available, but well worth asking for, tah dig is the crispy layer left at the bottom of a pot of rice steamed in the traditional Persian manner. As a mazeh, it's served with your choice of stew (which we'll get to later), in which case you should be sure to eat it promptly. After it sits for a few minutes under the moist topping, the rice becomes tough and chewy.
Barley and vegetable aash (soup) is one of those palate-fooling vegetarian dishes you could swear had some meat broth, but the server insisted it contains nothing but barley and herbs, not even any dairy. This dish highlights a major problem with describing Persian food: I can tell you it's delicious, but I can't even guess what all's in there. A non-vegetarian version in Najmieh Batmanglij's New Food of Life, the definitive English-language Persian cookbook, calls for 23 ingredients, including two kinds of beans and four cups of fresh herbs. She also notes that soup is so central to the cuisine that the Farsi words for cook and kitchen translate literally as "soup preparer" and "place the soup is prepared."
Another guess-what dish is torshee. Described on the menu as "pickled vegetable," this is what we would call a relish: a mix of finely chopped carrot, eggplant, onion, parsley, mint, and dozens of other ingredients, preserved in wine vinegar. It's overpoweringly tart, so a little goes a long way one order would be plenty for a party of six. Personally, I wouldn't order it again except to accompany some rich meat dishes.
Speaking of which, the best mazeh, and the most expensive (twice the price of the others), are one of Maykadeh's main draws: their innards. The calf brains, for example: a big helping, perfectly broiled for a little char on the outside but with the middles still creamy, like scrambled egg yolks, in a haunting sauce of butter, lots of saffron, and a touch of citrus. Or the lamb's tongue: unctuous, gamy, in a rich, slightly tart sauce of (to hazard a guess) butter and kashk, maybe with a bit of dried Persian lime. Best of all, the braised lamb's head boned and with the odder bits removed, so more like a stew of tongue, cheek, and brain with its own deep-flavored broth spiced with cinnamon, saffron, and some mysterious sour element.
Another way to go is to order the Iranian national dish: chelo-kebab, grilled meat served with rice. Meat choices include lamb chops, lamb filet, a mix of ground beef and lamb, filet mignon, chicken thighs or breast, and whole chicken, variously marinated and spiced, and garnished with roasted tomato, raw onion, limes, sumac (a tart berry ground to powder), and fresh herbs. (The ground meat is the only dish listed on the menu as chelo-kebab, but the term applies equally well to the other grilled items.) A small portion of the rice (Basmati, Iranian being unavailable) is cooked with saffron, so it gets a bright yellow-orange color, and then mixed with the remaining white rice for aroma and a pretty polka-dot effect. A fun way to eat chelo-kebab is to order a mix of meats and eat family-style with a large group. On the side, order some torshee and tah dig without sauce.
Yet another option is to order a khoresht (stew) or polo (pilaf), home-style one-dish meals. The best meat dish on the menu might be the khoresht ghorme sabzee, lamb shank and eggplant braised with tomato, saffron, and dried lime. Slow cooking softens the meat and blends the flavors until you can hardly tell which is which. In contrast, khoresht fesenjoon, chicken thighs in a sweet walnut-pomegranate sauce, tasted too much like peanut butter and jelly. The vinegary torshee came in handy to cut the cloying sweetness to a more balanced sweet-and-sour.
We cluelessly expected the Persian tea to be mint nope, wrong country. In fact, it's very similar to English tea. The server said the baklava would go well with it, and it does. Small bites of the dense, sweet pastry, packed with ground pistachios, sopping with honey, and aromatic with rosewater are delightful alternated with sips of hot, astringent tea. The bastani, a similarly aromatic housemade saffron-pistachio-rose ice cream, tasted better before I placed the familiar aroma as grandma's cold cream.
The wine list could use some work. It's mostly well-known California producers, and outside of one California sparking wine and an Argentine red, none seemed likely to go well with the food. Given that almost every dish has a tart element (lemon, lime, dried lime, vinegar, yogurt, pickles, pomegranate, kashk), it's a shame that the list doesn't focus on European wines such as Txacolis and Chinons that pair better with such dishes. In the meantime, I recommend bringing your own and paying the corkage.
Maykadeh's furnishings, service, and atmosphere are surprisingly nice for a restaurant in its price range mostly appetizers under $10, and entrees under $20. That, and food like Mom used to make, explains why on weekend nights the place is often packed with large groups of Persians from all over the Bay Area.