"You'll never believe what just happened while I was in the bathroom," Sonia says when she comes back to the table. She seems a little miffed. We are eating dinner at Garson, a Persian restaurant on Hillcroft. While she was in the bathroom, I was sampling her stew. Maybe that's why she's so upset?
It's a beef-and-lentil stew called gheimeh, which is served with a topping of crispy french fries. Buried in the thick broth is a dark round object that Sonia warns me about. It's a dried lime. The first time she had this dish, she tells me, she made the mistake of popping the whole thing in her mouth. Tonight she is avoiding it. I wondered if a dried lime is like a whole chile -- the kind of seasoning that you can eat in small pieces with the rest of the dish if you are so inclined. So while she's away, I cut off a tiny chunk and eat it with some lentils and sauce. It's horrendously sour all right, bitter too. But kind of interesting.
But surely she's not pissed at me for eating her dried lime.
713-781-0400. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily
Baba ghanoush: $4.95
Must museer: $3.95
Garson special (chicken and rib eye): $14.95
Lamb shank: $12.95
Tahdig with stew: $4.95
"So what happened?" I ask.
Sonia looks around to see if anybody is in earshot. There are maybe ten customers in the restaurant. At one table, four women in traditional Islamic head coverings dine together. Two men speaking Persian sip soft drinks at another table.
"When I came out of the stall, the waitress was waiting for me," Sonia says. "She told me the manager really liked me and wanted to meet me, and then she gave me his card."
"What?" I say with my jaw agape.
My first visit to Garson was much less eventful. On my arrival a few weeks earlier, I was quite taken by the imaginative interior architecture. The ceiling is composed of several layers of interestingly shaped panels that are painted exotic purples, greens and reds. These hues, I was told, are the traditional colors of Persian carpets.
But I was most impressed on that visit with the hot flat bread made before your eyes at a sort of pizza-oven station in the front of the restaurant. The bakers noisily smacked the dough and then ran a rolling pin with spikes called a docker over the flattened shape to eliminate air bubbles. The crispy bread was brought straight from the oven, hot and slightly blackened around the edges. It was about nine inches in diameter, so you had to break it or cut it into wedges to eat it. The bread was served with a plate of radishes, feta cheese, mint and parsley. You can complement the bread course with dips such as tabbouleh, hummus or baba ghanoush. We ordered the must museer, a yogurt dip with shallots, mostly for its practicality, since it can serve both as a dip and as a sauce for grilled meats.
On that first visit, I tried an assortment of the grilled meats, which Garson specializes in. Grilled rib eye, grilled scallops and grilled chicken were served with two kinds of rice on the side. The medium-rare rib eye was extremely tender, while the scallops and chicken were perfectly cooked and quite juicy. But I was disappointed overall. Grilled meats served without any sauce get boring fast, no matter how well they're cooked.
The must museer helped, but I wondered if there were other dips that I should have ordered to go with the meats. The waiter, who barely spoke English, was no help in this regard. An unassuming bottle of Australian cabernet-shiraz from Oxford Landing saved the day. It was just the right sort of brash, young, fruity red wine to drink with these grilled meats.
But I hoped to find something more interesting to write about at Garson next time. And boy did my wish get granted.
Sonia is the lovely young Hispanic woman who went out for lobster with me a few weeks ago. We aren't dating or anything. She's just an enthusiastic fan of the Cafe section who volunteered to eat with me after Red and I broke up. And who was I to turn down such an offer?
The restaurant manager no doubt concluded that a beauty like Sonia could do a lot better than a fortysomething fossil like me. He's right, but he made the fateful mistake of trying to close in on her himself. It was not the wisest move he ever made.
We ate at Garson at Sonia's suggestion. She has always loved the Persian cuisine there, and she took great joy in introducing me to the place. She also knew the key to getting exciting flavors here: "Stick with the stews." While the grilled meats at Garson are rather plain, the stewed dishes are intricately seasoned.
My favorite, besides the beef, lentil and dry-lime stew, was the stewed lamb shank, a falling-apart-tender chunk of lamb served on the bone with a cinnamon-scented sauce on the side. I attempted to spoon some of the sauce over the rice served on another plate until the waiter kindly stepped in and poured the entire contents of the lamb platter over the herbed rice so that none of the sauce went to waste.
The stand-out vegetable dish had to be the eggplant, which was roasted until it fell apart and then was served in a tart and creamy Persian sauce. Vegetarians will also love Garson's spinach-and-kidney-bean stew, a creamy spinach puree with whole red beans and the exotic aroma of coriander. I tried the rich vegetable blend ladled over the strange crispy rice cake called tahdig.
"Many cultures have a dish like this," rice expert Paul Galvani told me. "It is literally the potstick -- the cake of rice that sticks to the bottom of the pot, which is then fried until it's very crisp."
The tahdig I had at Garson was so hard it was like chewing uncooked rice. I had to let the spinach-and-kidney- bean stew soak in for a good 15 minutes. Only then did I eat it -- for dessert. But most Iranians seem to prefer their tahdig to have the texture of concrete.
Iranian spinach dishes are always a good bet -- the strain of spinach eaten in the West came from ancient Persia. So did many common herbs such as basil, mint, cumin, cloves and coriander. Persia also introduced oranges, pistachios and saffron to the world, along with the domesticated goat, the preferred livestock of nomadic tribes. Too bad Garson doesn't serve a goat stew.
"So what did you say to the waitress in the bathroom?" I ask Sonia as we finish our wine.
"I said to her, 'I'm here with someone!' She says, 'But you're not married to him, are you?' Then when we go out of the bathroom, this guy is walking by, and she says, 'That's him. Don't you want to talk to him?' "
Sonia is part embarrassed and part amazed. She gives me the guy's card. The playboy wanna-be has scrawled his cell-phone number on the back.
Now I'm a broad-minded guy. But it seems to me that when the manager of a restaurant hits on a customer's date when she gets up to go to the bathroom, he has violated the laws of hospitality. These sacred laws, as described in Greek mythology, were enforced by the gods. In fact, these creative deities apparently loved nothing better than to sit around and think up really clever punishments.
Paris, it is said, violated the laws of hospitality when he seduced his host's wife, Helen, and carried her off to Troy. His host was the king of Sparta, and the punishment for Paris's bad manners was a thousand ships full of angry Greeks who eventually took out the Trojan prince with a big wooden horse.
The restroom Romeo at Garson doesn't have anything nearly that awful to worry about. Nobody is going to send a thousand ships after him. But the gods who enforce the laws of hospitality have conceived an ingenious punishment nonetheless. They have sent him the wrong woman to proposition: the date of the local food critic who is dining anonymously in his restaurant. It has that broad, delicious irony so common to ancient myths and I Love Lucy episodes. He smiles as we leave, completely clueless as to his impending fame; and I return his grin.
Sometimes working as an anonymous food critic is like being behind the lens on Candid Camera. Restaurant folks do the weirdest things when they think that no one important is looking. But the best thing about my secretive job is that, sometimes, when I write about a restaurant's faults, the hard words actually convince them to change.
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For instance, I can pretty much guarantee that the Garson loo-lurker won't be hitting on pretty girls in his restaurant again anytime soon. Even when the humiliation of reading about his sleazy moves subsides, he will still be seeing anonymous food critics lurking behind every menu. Which gives this story a happy ending. Now you can go to Garson and enjoy the beef-and-lentil gheimeh, the stewed lamb and the hot crisp flat bread. And whether you are an attractive woman or a couple on a date, I predict you will be treated with the kind of hospitality normally afforded visiting royalty.
And we will all eat there happily ever after.
Wine notes: Oxford Landing, cabernet-shiraz, Australia, 1999, $26. Shiraz is the capital of the Iranian region of Fars; it is also the name of a wine grape believed to have originated there. The shiraz grape yields a fruity wine with wonderful berry and plum aromas and a bright red cherry color. It is the most common varietal of the northern Rhone region, where it is known as syrah. Today, shiraz is revolutionizing the wine business halfway around the world in Australia. Winemakers there are producing magnificent shiraz-based blends, including this one, which combines fruity shiraz with cabernet in a new style of blended red. The shiraz gives the wine an easy-drinking character, while the cabernet adds depth and complexity with its stronger tannins and cigar-box aromas.