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Maykadeh 

Paradise Found

Wednesday, Jul 11 2001
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If you want some good advice regarding Maykadeh, a Persian restaurant, consider the episode my friend Petra and I witnessed. When we arrived at 8:30 on a Saturday night, the place was bursting with Persians -- Persian fathers carrying babies, quartets of Persian daughters, Persian men planting kisses on one another's cheeks among a crowd of about a dozen out front. We had a reservation, but owner/ hostess Mahin Khossoussi told us apologetically that (as we could see) there were no available seats. She promised to take care of it, though, so we waited, watching three young Americans walk in and ask for a table. Since they had no reservation, Mahin told them the wait would be about 45 minutes. She then seated an eight-top in between answering the phone, clearing plates, bidding diners good night, and greeting just about every new arrival by name.

"That's your table, I promise you," she told us a few minutes later, nodding toward a trio of Persians who were about to depart. As we took our seats, I noticed that the Americans had decided to wait it out. I assume they'd eaten at Maykadeh before, because there's no other way to explain why anyone would want to stand by and watch others dine in North Beach, which must surely contain the city's densest collection of restaurants. Then again, perhaps they got a contact high as Petra, I, and the rest of the clientele feasted on oven-warmed pita bread, divine yogurt-cucumber sauce, and the kind of entrees that make life worth living (and then some). By the time our meal was over, the crowd out front had swelled to 50 or so, I'd declared "Oh my God" at least five times, and Petra had asked where Persian food had been all her life. As for the Americans, they waited for more than an hour, but as they were being seated, boy, did they look stoked.

The moral of the story is that it never hurts to make a reservation, especially when dining at what may be the best restaurant in North Beach. Granted, I might change that assessment on any given day: If I were in the mood for sweet potato gnocchi, the best restaurant would be Da Flora; if saltimbocca, perhaps Ristorante Ideale; if desserts, Jianna. But if I had a craving for saffron-marinated lamb kebabs and slow-cooked Persian stews, I'd probably declare Maykadeh the best restaurant in San Francisco. The place has been open for 18 years, and under the guidance of Mahin and her husband Mahmoud (who may serve as your host, waiter, bartender, or chef) it seems to have found its niche.

It may be impossible to step inside Maykadeh without wondering, "What's that incredible smell?" Chances are, it'll be the pungent, lingering aroma of saffron (Maykadeh goes through about a kilogram per month). Warm, peach-colored walls are decorated with vivid photographs of rustic Persian scenes. Elaborate dried-flower arrangements and votive candles set in brandy snifters give the place an elegant, exotic feel. Weekends can be a scene (as noted above), whereas weekdays lower the hum of conversation enough to hear soft, swooning Persian music waft from the sound system.

The best way to sum up Maykadeh is to say the food ranges from quite good to almost inhumanly delectable, and the portions are so huge you get nearly as much sustenance for the dollar as you would at the average taqueria. The name comes from the Persian word for "house of wine" (a sort of speak-easy), and Maykadeh lives up to the image with an impressive array of wines and liquors. If you're in the mood for a house cocktail, the Persian Lady (vodka, sour cherry, lime, and tonic) is a tad bitter; instead, try the exquisitely tart Persian Delight (vodka and pomegranate juice), or perhaps a light, alcohol-free yogurt drink.

Then brace yourself for a wild culinary ride. The meal begins with a complimentary plate of raw onion, feta, fresh basil, and cilantro, to be folded into piping-hot pita bread. Add some mast-o-khiar -- divinely creamy homemade yogurt laced with cucumber and dill -- from the mazeh (appetizers) and you'll probably decide right then that Maykadeh is a place to which you must return. The shirazi salad is a simple, invigorating mix of cucumber, tomato, and onions touched with a bright lime-juice vinaigrette. Torshee, a garlicky blend of pickled eggplant and carrot, is normally eaten as a condiment; I tried it straight (a bad idea) and found it vinegary enough to pucker my soul. I don't see how two people could finish an order of zaytoon -- about 30 plump olives marinated in vinegar, olive oil, paprika, and cayenne pepper -- but every meal seems to be followed by to-go boxes, and those olives make fabulous snack material later.

Though soup doesn't travel as well, Maykadeh's aash -- a hearty purée of barley, spinach, and lentils, underscored with a shimmering dose of mint -- proved so irresistible it didn't matter (we consumed every drop). Hot dolmas stuffed with a silky purée of minced lamb, rice, and split peas and topped with yogurt were superb enough to turn a person against cold dolmas forever. Tahdig isn't the kind of food you want to replicate at home (according to Mahmoud, the topping of ghorme sabzee takes two days to prepare). As a whole, it was pretty good -- a crunchy disc of rice topped with a whisper-light blend of fenugreek, chives, leeks, and scallions simmered with lamb, herbs, and spices.

Up a notch on the delectability scale were the kebabs, which came with a whole roasted tomato, onions, green peppers, and a mountain of basmati rice topped with a bright orange dab of saffron butter. The chicken breast kebabs, marinated in olive oil, onion, lime juice, and saffron, were good, if a bit dry, while the lamb shish kebabs (marinated in the same seasonings) were so amazing they could have made an ayatollah squeal like a little girl. Each chunk of meat was as big as a pack of cigarettes and three times as addictive, with juicy, slightly gamy flesh playing off sharp notes of citrus and the luxurious flavor of saffron. Throw in a skewer of koobideh -- an intensely spiced blend of ground lamb and beef that sets you back a mere $2 extra -- and you've got one of the finest entrees for two that 20 S.F. bucks can buy.

Despite all this exquisiteness, the stews are the best items on the menu. Ask your waiter to bring khoresht bademjan and you'll get decadently melting eggplant braised with saffron, tomato, sun-dried lime, and a tender lamb shank that's nearly as thick as a bowling pin. If barberries -- a tart, sweet, cranberrylike fruit -- sound good, try the zereshk polo, chicken thighs in a rich saffron sauce, served with a mound of rice laced with saffron butter and barberries. Khoresht fesenjoon translated as chicken thighs in a glistening, blood-red pool of crushed walnuts stewed with pomegranate juice, a blend that exploded with a razor-sharp blast of sweet, sour, and pure nutty savor. After the first taste I began invoking the Lord's name, and though I may feel differently someday, with every bite I became more convinced that pomegranate and walnut make the finest combination of flavors on Earth.

As is the case at the Helmand -- a superb Afghan place on Broadway -- desserts at Maykadeh are simple and excellent. They range from a soft, rich baklava to Persian ice cream laced with pistachios and cardamom to the funky little concoction known as paloudeh. Here, thin, white rice noodles were molded around crushed ice, frozen, then served in rose water with a side of cherry syrup. It wasn't the finest combination of flavors on Earth (that would still be pomegranate and walnut), but it was certainly up there. The paloudeh is yet another reason why you should go to Maykadeh if you haven't yet been; if you have, do yourself a favor and go again.

About The Author

Greg Hugunin

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