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.
"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.
To be honest, the food is quite similar to that at the homier Darband Shish Kabob, another Persian kebaberie right up the street. Across Hillcroft, I can see the front door of tencafé, which serves the spicier Pakistani kabobs. Two of my favorite Indian food outlets, Bombay Sweets and Hot Breads Bakers, are within half a block. In fact, I'm sitting in walking distance of ten of my favorite Houston ethnic restaurants.
This section of Hillcroft would have been a much better candidate for a pedestrian mall than that sparsely inhabited area of Main Street with the goofy fountains. Imagine the two blocks of Hillcroft north of 59 as a giant tented bazaar -- an international souk where you could buy Persian carpets and drink tea with the merchants. But I suppose that's exactly what these two blocks of Hillcroft already are, with the added convenience of air-conditioning.
I've tried the roasted eggplant, the ground pickles and just about everything else on Bijan's menu, but flatbreads with grilled kabobs are really the best thing to get -- besides the desserts.
Thanks to Loreta, I eat baklava every time I come to Bijan. I never really knew what great baklava was supposed to taste like. But now that I do, I feel compelled to order it when I can get it. I've also grown quite fond of the stuffed dates, which have a whole nut where the pit used to be and are covered with a sort of dry, baked cookie dough.
"What does that taste like?" my daughter asks quizzically after taking a bite. Having considered the coating on the dates before, I'm quick with a response.
"It tastes like cinnamon toast."
There's a room off to the side where you can smoke a hookah after dinner. Loreta, who recently gave up cigarettes, was dying to smoke a hookah when we came here. The rest of us talked her out of it.
I called her several days after our dinner and asked if she liked Bijan enough to go back. Loreta lives a good way from Hillcroft.
"Are you kidding? I was there yesterday trying to get some baklava for breakfast," she said, laughing. Unfortunately, she discovered that Bijan doesn't open until 11. But stopping by Bijan for a pot of tea and some dessert is a good idea. Especially while the weather is still cool and you can sit outside on the patio looking out over the Hillcroft Bazaar.
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