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Baklava Bravissimo

Cafe Bijan makes treats so good, somebody's grandma must've made them

Our hostess waits patiently behind the walk-up counter while the four of us stare at the pretty pictures of kabob plates mounted on the wall above her. Judging from the photos, the lamb, beef and chicken are all skewered and grilled equally well at Bijan Persian Grill, the upscale kebaberie at Hillcroft and U.S. 59 that's been packing them in since it opened six months ago.

"I want something like cevapcici," Loreta Kovacic, my Croatian friend, tells the woman.

"Ah, cevapcici. You want No. 23," the woman says without hesitation.

The garlicky grilled lamb chunks, shown here with the 
baklava, are easily the best thing on the menu.
Troy Fields
The garlicky grilled lamb chunks, shown here with the baklava, are easily the best thing on the menu.

Location Info

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Bijan Persian Grill

5922 Hillcroft
Houston, TX 77036

Category: Restaurant > Middle Eastern

Region: Outer Loop - SW

Details

No. 23: $8.99
Baklava: 99 cents
Beef koobideh: $5.50
Chicken combo: $8.99
Stuffed dates (two): $1.50
5922 Hillcroft, 832-242-5959. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

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"Where are you from?" Loreta asks her, wondering if she has encountered a fellow Balkan.

"Afghanistan," the woman says. Our orders taken, Loreta loads up a plastic tray with a pot of tea and two desserts, and we all go outside to a table on the veranda overlooking the parking lot and the traffic.

"I can't believe she knew about cevapcici," Loreta says as we sit down. "That's like the hamburger of Croatia. You eat it on pita with ajvar [red pepper paste] and grilled onions." I remind Loreta that I ate cevapcici (pronounced "ke-VWOP-chi-chi") with her at a backyard cookout last summer.

"What are the odds of running into a Serbo-Croatian-speaking Afghani at a Persian restaurant in an Indian neighborhood?" I joke with my tablemates. I'm about to begin my "wonders of Hillcroft" speech when I'm interrupted by Loreta's baklava.

Loreta, an "eat dessert first" kind of girl, started scarfing the pastry the second we sat down. Now she's gripped by a spiritual fervor and a need to testify.

"This baklava is incredible. Look at all these nuts!" she says, shoving the paper plate toward me. Loreta is a highly regarded classical pianist whose style is so powerful, she once broke a key off her instrument while performing in competition. When she says you must try the baklava, you literally have no choice.

I loathe sweets before dinner, but I must admit this is an exceptional baklava. The average specimen has a lot of layers of phyllo dough interspersed here and there with a few chopped nuts and a lot of honey. But this version has a little phyllo on the top, a little on the bottom, and a good three quarters of an inch of honey-sweetened, cinnamon-flavored ground walnuts in the middle. Instead of the usual sticky texture, the nuts form a rich paste that still has a subtle crunchiness. "Somebody's grandmother has to be making this," Loreta says.

As the server delivers our grilled meats to the patio, a manager walks by. "Hey, mister!" Loreta yells. "Where do you get this baklava?"

"We make it here," he says. "Do you like it?"

"It's wonderful!" Loreta says. "I knew it!"

"All right, enough about the baklava already," her husband, Joe, pleads, eager to dig into his grilled meat.

"But this is the best baklava I've had in Houston," she says, ignoring him. "Well, except for maybe Sabina's friend's homemade baklava, but that doesn't count because you can't go over to her house and order some whenever you want."

Joe and I ordered chelo kebab barg, garlicky grilled lamb chunks, which have a little char on the outside but are pink and juicy in the middle. They're without a doubt the best thing to get at Bijan. The meat is served on a huge mound of rice with a plate of parsley and radishes on the side. Each order also comes with a big round piece of hot-out-of-the-clay-oven flatbread. I grabbed a bowl of yogurt with shallots and cucumbers up front when I ordered. Now I slather some inside a piece of flatbread as the sauce for a lamb-and-parsley taco.

Loreta's No. 23 features one grilled steak kabob and one ground beef skewer, which is known here as koobideh. Another dining companion gets a combination of grilled chicken and ground chicken koobideh. Like the lamb, the pieces of white chicken meat are perfectly cooked, nicely charred on the outside and juicy within. But in truth, all of the meats are plain. The hamburger meat is downright bland.

Actually, it wouldn't be a bad idea for Bijan to borrow the Yugoslavian recipe for cevapcici, which is usually a blend of about 70 percent ground beef and 30 percent ground lamb. It has a lot more flavor than Bijan's koobidehs.

But the boring grilled ground beef gets a lot more exciting if you roll it up inside a piece of hot flatbread spread with yogurt and shallots, layered with fresh basil, parsley, cilantro, and a little grilled onion and grilled pepper, and dusted liberally with the tart sumac powder from the shaker bottle on the table. I try the same trick with the ground chicken kabobs, but I just can't get past the rubbery texture.


On my last of three visits to Bijan, my daughter and I sit beside a miniature stone statue of Darius I. According to the legend on the base, he was the king of Persia in 552 BC. The sculpture is arranged on a glass shelf in the middle of the restaurant along with some other little statues and ornate teapots. Together with the high ceilings and faux marble floors, the objets d'art give the restaurant an elegant countenance.

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