Restaurant Reviews

Persian Paradise

In Farsi, the word "kolbeh" means a place in the country, a retreat -- and one always associated with food. And while Kolbeh Persian American Grill is hardly in the country (the strip center on Hillcroft near Harwin where it's tucked away boasts a lot more cement than waving grass), a retreat it surely is, a worthwhile addition to the upscale likes of Hillcroft neighbors Garson and Cafe Caspian.

Kolbeh's interior is, in fact, a dark and mirrored sanctuary, one outfitted in the center with a thick Persian carpet (though the wings have to settle for standard wall-to-wall) and sleek Deco-inspired furnishings in glossy black lacquer. And like a polished hostess, Kolbeh welcomes its guests with grace. As soon as we were seated, our server greeted us with a complimentary plate piled with soft feta cheese chunks, fresh basil leaves, sprigs of parsley, crunchy radishes and thick slices of raw white onion. This was escorted by a huge wheel of crisp, flat taftoon bread, hot from the oven.

When the bread was cool enough to handle, we tore it into bite-size pieces to wrap around the cheese, herbs and vegetables. The wedges of bread also came in handy to scoop up the appetizer dips, among them borani essfanaj, spinach fried with onions and garlic, cooled, then mixed thick with homemade yogurt and mint. Even though I'm a sworn enemy of eggplant, I was bewitched by the kashk-e-bedemjan, which is pureed, toasted eggplant and onions with crisp little bits of toasted garlic on the side, tinted with turmeric and topped with velvety kashk, a rich, thickened yogurt concoction also known as Persian cream.

I also tried the cottlets, small oval patties made from mashed potatoes and seasoned ground beef that are dipped in egg batter, then fried, and served with crunchy dill pickles and tomato wedges. I didn't know quite what to expect from a cottlet; the result reminded me of the Syrian dish kibbeh in both texture and taste. The unexpected juxtaposition of pickles and tomatoes does serve a purpose beyond garnishing the plate, I decided; without their cool, wet contrast, the cottlet patties would be a little dry. I yearned for a sauce of some sort to dunk them in.

Pickles put in another appearance with the dolmeh, a Persian cousin of Greek dolmades, tender grape leaves stuffed plump with rice, chickpeas and seasoned ground beef. Beside these dolmeh, ordinary dolmades pale in comparison; the flavor, subtly enhanced by leeks and mint, is richer and more complex.

Rice is the ancient foundation of Persian foodways, and persists as a staple of the modern Iranian diet. Kolbeh offers several superbly-cooked basmati rice variations, any one of which is worth a trip in its own right. The meat dishes at Kolbeh are served around a mound of dilled rice, tinted pale green with herbs and tossed with lima beans. Dilled rice is an excellent choice with the beef or lamb dishes, but I fell in love with the sour cherry rendition, albaloo polo: toothsome basmati topped with black cherries which, despite the dish's name, are slightly sweet. As an added attraction, the rice is loaded with slivered pistachios and almonds. Equally spectacular was the adas polo, rice laced with lentils, raisins and a handful of fat, sticky dates. The adas polo was remarkable as served, but ascended to the ranks of the stellar when I stirred in the torshi, a snappy, cold pickle-pepper relish. Any of these alternate rice configurations can be substituted for the standard dilled rice with entrees or ordered separately; they can also be ordered en masse on what works as a sampler plate, and I've got my eye on that three-rice combination for my next visit.

The heart of the Kolbeh menu is grilled meat kebabs. Here the humble and familiar flavors of cilantro, garlic and yogurt are braided with exotic strands of saffron, tamarind and sumac. There are three basic kebab configurations: chengeh, featuring marinated beef, chicken or lamb chunks that are skewered and charcoaled; barg, in which the chunks are pounded flat; and koobideh, in which the meats are first ground, seasoned and then formed around the skewers and grilled. Lamb barg, for example, is medallions of lamb marinated in an aromatic lemon and saffron mixture, served with dilled rice and grilled tomatoes. Chicken koobideh, on the other hand, is ground and seasoned chicken held together with egg and bread crumbs. The result is chicken that's tender and moist, and mildly spicy.

On the instruction of my waitress, I sprinkled the grilled beef and lamb with sumac, a dark brown seasoning that looks like freeze-dried coffee and appears on every table in a shaker-topped jar. The taste was mild and flavorful, like a understated blend of lemon and salt with a touch of chili powder. I was relieved to learn that sumac is a dried and ground leaf of a plant in the cashew family (not to be confused with our North American poisonous varietal of the same name).

Kolbeh is well-attuned to curious novices, with an admirable selection of sampling options on the menu. Since I was greedy to try all the kebabs, I was thrilled to find that you can graze on single skewers, which range in price from $2 to $4 each, as side dishes. Or, if you have a large party, you can try Kolbeh's salute to excess, the Tree of Kebabs. This eye-popping feast intended for four will get you your choice of eight skewers, two stews, four rices and two appetizers (and maybe a partridge in a pear tree) for $69.95. Speaking of partridges, I can also recommend the quail: a covey of six tidy little breast halves lightly seasoned and perfectly grilled -- crisp outside, moist inside -- nestled on a mountain of rice.

Another Kolbeh specialty is the Persian koresh, described as a stew but served on a plate. I found the koreshes more heavily and exotically seasoned than the kebab offerings, and as a first-time diner I was ever so gently discouraged from choosing them by the polite staff. Typically, a koresh combines browned lamb or beef with fried vegetables which are then boiled together, but Kolbeh also presents a delightful fish version. Called gahliyeh mahi, this koresh hides chunks of perfectly cooked red snapper under a blanket of stir-fried cilantro and parsley. Sparked with tamarind paste, turmeric and pistachios, it's served with a side dish of plain or dilled rice. The generous portion was more than I could finish, but of course I'd already stuffed myself with rice and taftoon. Fortunately, as I discovered after carting my excess home, gahliyeh mahi tastes even better the next day.

My most exotic encounter, though, was with the dough, a native Iranian drink made of fresh yogurt mixed with fizzy club soda, sprinkled with black pepper, dried dill and mint and served chilled over ice. When I saw diners at another table enjoying dough by the milky-white pitcherful, I had the surreal feeling of being an extra on the set of Alien Nation. I was irresistibly drawn to give it a try. Now that I have, I think it's definitely an acquired taste, like the buttermilk I used to drink in my grandmother's kitchen. Though it's strangely thirst-quenching on a hot day, I decided I preferred the floral-scented iced tea to either the dough or the solitary wine selection, a California chardonnay as astringent as retsina.

Open only a couple of months, Kolbeh shows the polish of experienced management behind the scenes. Minor glitches such as the overworked air conditioning system will no doubt be smoothed out; a carryout menu and an outdoor patio dining area are in the works. As it stands, Kolbeh is an outstanding addition to Houston's melting pot: Sophisticated enough for serious foodies, yet hospitable to neophytes, it promises a seductive setting for a thousand and one nights of Persian pleasures.

Kolbeh Persian American Grill, 5700 Hillcroft, 785-1358.

Kolbeh Persian American Grill:
kashk-e-bedemjan, $3.50; cottlet, $2.75; borani essfanaj, $3.25; gahliyeh mahi, $9.95; lamb barg, $11.95; beef and lamb chengeh, $12.95; Tree of Kebabs dinner, $69.95.

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Margaret L.Briggs