The hummus at Kasra Persian Grill on Westheimer near Gessner isn't the fluffy chickpea and tahini spread you get at your local Middle Eastern restaurant. This is a flat puddle of pureed garbanzos in an oval platter, shimmering under a slick of olive oil.
When we first sat down, a round of hot Persian flatbread called taftoon was placed on our table along with an herb plate containing basil, mint, parsley, green onion, radishes and little cubes of feta cheese. The taftoon was crusty and satisfying, but it was also dry. And there wasn't any butter or olive oil.
So when the hummus plate we ordered as an appetizer arrived, I figured my dry bread problem was solved. I pulled off a hunk of taftoon and scooped up a huge gob of the oily spread. What a shock. It was the spiciest hummus I have ever eaten. At first I thought it was spiked with cayenne or some sort of chile. But after a while, I realized the burn came from raw garlic lots and lots of raw garlic. If garlic is a health aid, then the hummus at Kasra will cure nearly anything, except for maybe halitosis. But that's what the mint is for.
Kasra Persian Grill
9741 Westheimer, 713-975-1810.
I was unclear about what to do with the herb plate items. I tried folding some leaves into the taftoon, and I tried mixing them with other foods, as you do in a Vietnamese restaurant. Then a couple of men who appeared to be friends of the owner sat down. I watched out of the corner of my eye when their bread and herbs arrived. They both picked up huge wads of the parsley, mint and basil leaves, shoved them in their mouths and chewed. So I followed their example. You certainly get an intense rush of flavor that way.
Having eaten at several other Houston Persian restaurants, I would have to say that it is the intensity of the flavors that sets Kasra apart. On my first visit, my tablemate and I decided to sample the Persian “stews.”
I got Kasra's khorake bademjan, a long-cooked lamb shank in a sauce of tomatoes, onions and sour grapes with two slices of fried eggplant on the side. The meat fell apart at the touch of a fork, and the sour grape-and-tomato sauce was wonderfully tart. The gooey eggplant slices and the tender lamb made for a luscious combination of soft textures and bold flavors. I spooned the extra sauce over the basmati rice that came on the side. It was one of the best lamb shank dishes I've tried.
My dining companion asked the waitress for the intriguing-sounding fesenjan, which the menu described as cubes of chicken cooked in a sauce of pomegranate juice, saffron and ground walnuts. The waitress insisted on bringing her a tiny portion to sample before she took the order. Evidently, a lot of people are disappointed by this unusual dish.
My tablemate, who loves pomegranate juice, tried the sample and went ahead with her order. The dish turned out to contain very few cubes of chicken and a whole lot of sauce. The flowery saffron and berry-like pomegranate aromas emanating from the thick purple paste were alluring. But she wasn't wild about the flavor.
Between the astringency of the walnuts and the sourness of the fruit juice, the sauce came off as tart and bitter. It tasted exotic over rice, but it was overpowering by itself. It's a flavor you have to learn to love.
Barg, shishleek and kubideh are the Persian dishes that appeal to most Texans. These spicy meats charbroiled on skewers are the stars of the Persian barbecue tradition. On our second visit, four adults and a couple of kids feasted on a wide assortment of these and other grilled meats.
Barg is the most basic “steak on a stick,” a whole butterflied filet mignon basted with garlic sauce and broiled to a pinkish medium. It doesn't get much simpler than this. Shishleek is nearly the same thing as barg, except it uses tenderloin pieces that are cut into chunks. The steaks come with red, ripe grilled tomatoes and delicate basmati rice with a hint of saffron.
The broiled steaks were excellent, but it was the skewer-cooked ground beef called kubideh that the beef lovers at the table went wild over. Kasra's kubideh is high-quality ground beef mixed with grated onion, garlic and spices. I wonder why Texas hamburger restaurants aren't borrowing this pureed onion trick. It gives the ground beef a fabulous flavor and a lighter texture.
We had the same sort of revelation when it came to the charbroiled poultry dishes. The jujeh kabob was made with a whole Cornish game hen marinated in yogurt and spices and charbroiled. The blackened bits and the juicy meat of the thighs were outstanding. Still, they were no match for the bright-orange chicken kubideh, a ground chicken preparation broiled on a skewer. The recipe seemed to include the same grated onion, this time with lots of turmeric.
Luckily, Kasra combines several skewers of grilled meats on various entrées, so you don't have to choose just one of the broiled meat dishes. The “sultani” combines one skewer of kubideh with the filet mignon barg, while the “chicken sultani” gives you one skewer of chicken and one of chicken kubideh.
Kasra's “shrimp kabob” is a simple plate of jumbo shrimp skewered and grilled in garlic butter to juicy perfection. I am not sure if they have any shrimp in Iran, but I lost all interest in the fine points of authenticity when I tasted these. Granted, it's a little weird to go to a place like Kasra and skip over the Persian food in favor of Gulf shrimp cooked in garlic butter, but there is also no denying that they taste spectacular.
Instead of getting the saffron rice that comes with all the grilled meat appetizers, we mixed it up by ordering some of the specialty rice dishes that are available for a buck and a half extra. The rice with dill and fava beans was a pleasant change, though nothing special. The zereshk polo, on the other hand, was pretty wild. This dish was made with basmati rice garnished with a pile of barberries, small dried Iranian berries that taste sort of like lemony raisins.
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Sour cherry rice was the most interesting of all. Cherries were blended with cranberries, pistachios and almonds into a sour nut sauce that was spooned over the basmati. The sour fruit and bitter nut flavors that seemed overpowering in the fesenjan were a perfect compliment to the grilled meats. I would consider using the sour cherry concoction as a barbecue sauce.
On my last visit to Kasra, I had gheymeh for lunch. It's a mildly seasoned stew of yellow split peas and beef bits in a tart tomato sauce that looks like pork and beans and has the same sort of comforting texture. I regretted skipping the silky fried eggplant that was available as an addition. It would have given the plain stew another level of interest.
A lot of people were drinking a white beverage while I was eating lunch. It turned out to be a traditional Persian drink called doogh. I got one to go when I paid my bill. It's a refreshing blend of yogurt, lemon juice and mint mixed with carbonated water. It reminded me of the Indian drink called a lassi, not only because of the similarity of ingredients, but because both have a wonderful calming effect on the stomach.
I am mystified by how long it took me to learn about this gem of a restaurant. It's easy to overlook because the front is invisible from the street. Kasra is a white-tablecloth ethnic restaurant with a friendly vibe and excellent service. And it's a perfect choice for groups that include both adventurous eaters and those who prefer to stick with steak.