Class, let's go back now to 10th-century Persia -- and chow down! According to Maykadeh's menu, Persia is the root word for "paradise," and it may have been the site of the Garden of Eden. It was a world power in ancient times, but by the Middle Ages, when everybody and his brother was invading, it was merely the undisputed culinary-central of the medieval world. For 600 years, anybody with frequent schlepper miles on the silk road or the overland spice trail made sure to stop off for a few good meals. They could hardly help it, of course, since there was no way around this large, luxurious land that stood on the route to India and the Far East. The menu included lamb, kid, poultry, herbs, spices, pomegranates, citrus fruits, nuts, basmati rice, yeast breads, yogurt, rose water, salmon, sturgeon, caviar, shish kebab, sherbet ... Boy, folks would say, you can get anything you want at Persia's restaurants. Better yet, the Persians really knew how to cook this bounty, which is what comes of being civilized nonstop for several thousand years, at a time when Europe was just waking up all sandy-eyed from the Dark Ages. No doubt, the sign at the last inn before the Afghan border read: "Next Good Food -- China." Along with the traders, the various invaders (Turks, Mongols, Moguls, Afghans, etc.) were so universally conquered by the Persian table, they spread Persia's culinary tricks to their subsequent conquests and indirectly (via Spain) all the way to the New World.
Persia is now called Iran, a shift dictated by royal decree in 1935. (Why they changed it, I can't say -- shahs just liked it better that way.) The current regime of ayatollahs is just a passing moment in a long history. Iran remains largely agricultural, and the bounty of old still flourishes there, along with the patient, exacting cooking skills. (Even if the "modern" author of one of my Persian cookbooks makes promiscuous use of bouillon cubes, other Iranians still hand-knot carpets and soak rice for five hours.)
There are a host of Middle Eastern restaurants in San Francisco and a handful of Persian ones, and of these last, the one with the widest and most typical menu (and my own favorite) is Maykadeh -- a handsome North Beach spot with pointy Moorish arches shaping the dining areas and white napery lending a slightly formal air. Named after the taverns historically frequented by Persia's distinguished poets, mystics, and intellectuals, Maykadeh is crowded with local Persians, especially on weekends (when you really must reserve ahead). I enjoy their food better on weeknights, but can't say whether that's a result of more leisurely cooking or more leisurely eating in a quieter ambience.
This time, though, four busy schedules forced us to go on a Saturday night. As soon as we sat down, the waiter brought the traditional sabzee, a garnish plate (and snack) consisting of fresh whole-leaf herbs, a strong sweet onion, two scallions, some radishes, a hunklet of feta cheese, and foil packs of butter. Soon afterward came a basket of tasty flatbread similar to India's naan (which is based on the Persian version, not vice versa). We also received the standard ramekin of dark red summak, a deliciously sour spice you can sprinkle on any of the food to deepen the flavor. The wine list proved interesting and ample near the $20 end; we chose a cabernet-Shiraz blend that went beautifully with lamb and grills. The beer list is, as you'd expect, beerly adequate.
Salad shirazi ($3.25) was clean and refreshing, with diced tomato, cuke, and onion in a mild lemon dressing. Kashke bademjan ($6) consisted of eggplant pureed with mint and garlic; it has a rich, soothing texture and flavor and though related to the ubiquitous baba ghanouj, its taste is unique. A plate of hot dolma ($6) had grape leaves that obviously weren't canned (since they had no vinegar undertone) with a stuffing of chewy rice, brown lentils, and fresh mint, and a thin glaze of house-made yogurt. "These would be perfect if they just had some ground lamb in them," said TJ. I didn't think that was the problem. The next day, TJ and I agreed that the doggie-bagged last dolma proved glorious eaten cold, when the flavors were fully blended and undisguised by heat. My favorite dish at Maykadeh has bite-size pieces of lamb tongue ($6.50) in a gently tart sauce of sour cream, lime juice, and a whiff of saffron. We decided that it's not enough to simmer the tongues for the usual three hours -- it must take all day to get them so meltingly tender.
Finally, mesquite-grilled calf brain ($6.50) was a unique treatment. Brains are very popular in the Middle East, fried or marinated in salads or scrambled with eggs (just as Americans make them). Mary Ann reminisced that when her Sicilian grandfather would visit, he'd cook scrambled eggs, brains, and peppers, and she wouldn't touch it. "When I was dating a Swiss chef, I finally learned to eat them," she added. "He took me to a restaurant where they made sauteed brains in brown butter sauce, and I loved them. But these are different -- they're not gooey at all." The unsauced grilled chunks were trimmed not only of membranes, but of all the creamy, fatty-textured stuff (the corpus callosum). They had the look and texture of cauliflower (or of Wildwood extra-firm tofu) and tasted like tofu would taste were it made from veal. "Obviously this calf didn't do a lot of thinking," was Nick's explanation for the blandness.
We split our entrees between grills and stews. After ascertaining that we wanted our main courses served family-style, our waiter brought us four dinner plates covered with great hills of delicate basmati rice, called chelo (pronounced like cello, the stringed instrument), which comes with the grilled dishes. At the next table, an Iranian was miraculously managing to finish off his own heap. "This is great, how do they make it?" Mary Ann asked after a taste. I explained that you soak the rice all afternoon, boil it half-tender, pour on melted butter and then steam it covered with a damp towel. "In America, we want to get everything done as soon as possible," TJ observed, impressed. "We expect our rice to be done in 25 minutes max, or even use Minute rice. But Persian cuisine is so labor-intensive, even the rice takes a whole day."
Chelo-kabab soltani ($16.50) is a combination of kabab koobideh (skewered ground lamb and beef) and kabab barg (filet mignon, thinly sliced, marinated in lime juice and onion). The ground meat proved similar to India's better-known derivative, the much-abused seekh kebabs -- the difference being, this Persian take had moist, juicy meat and refined herbal seasoning. The filet mignon wasn't very exciting, though; it was a near-tasteless cut, and the thin slicing toughened it. Grilled poussin ("baby chicken," from a breed with very dark leg meat) had tiny, bone-in pieces, marinated with onion and saffron. Like the dolma, the leftovers of this dish were even better eaten at room temperature, the marinade flavors becoming more pronounced. An especially nice poultry grill that I've had at earlier visits is joojeh kebab ($11.25), tender boneless chicken in a delicate, juicy saffron-yogurt marinade.
Both the stews we ordered were just riveting. (Most stews are also available in vegetarian versions, by the way. From the greaseless sauces, it's obvious that the meats are simmered separately, and united with their garnishes only at serving.) Khoresht artichoke ($11.50) had simmered lamb shank with artichoke hearts, celery, scallions, mint, and other herbs -- a cooked, carnal version of the sabzee we started with. The artichoke hearts were firm but smooth, the sauce a dark, mysterious, spinachlike puree, tart and subtle. Even as Mary Ann was telling us of her dislike of lamb, her fork was rapidly moving chunks of the lean, tender meat from the bone to her mouth. Zereshk polo ($10.50) centered on rice cooked with barberries, along with a bountiful portion of chicken thighs. Unlike the butter-steamed chelo rice, polo is similar to pilaf, pelau, pullao, perlaw (etc.) -- rice that's sauteed in butter before liquid is added. In this case, it was strewn liberally with barberries, tiny red fruits related to maypops, tasting like peewee pomegranates, at once very sweet and very tart. If you're wondering about fesenjoon, Persia's most famous dish, it's made here with chicken (rather than the traditional duck; $11) in the classic acerbic sauce of ground walnuts and pomegranate juice. Alas, the last time I ate fesenjoon, it was tofu fesenjoon, the surprise main course at a Hanukkah dinner given by a cousin whose four teen-agers had gone vegetarian. I remember Maykadeh's version as being much better than Cousin Steve's, and in another 10 years I may recover enough from the tofu version to order real fesenjoon again.
We finished with "Persian tea," which proved to be just regular weak tea, and with bastani ($3.25), Persian ice cream flavored with rose water and plenty of pistachios. It was very thick, heavy, and eggy, dripping from the spoon like Karo syrup. Baklava ($2.50) and creme caramel ($3.50) are also available, but frankly, it's hard to give such rich desserts a fair chance right after a meal of such giant portions and intense flavors. When food takes such time and care to prepare, we ought to spend most of the night eating it slowly and attentively, sipping wine and spouting laudatory verses about it, like the poet Omar Khayyam and his literary buddies in the maykadehs of old Persia.