Persian food? Yes, and much of it will be familiar to those who are comfortable with Middle Eastern cuisine, enjoying dishes like hummus and falafel and the many types of kabobs. But there are other tasty dishes for those ready to venture off well-trodden paths, where we tend to wander when we drop by. We like baba ghannouj, the eggplant-and-tahini dip, but the Bahramis have another delicious eggplant appetizer, kashke-bademjune. Here the eggplant is flame-roasted, and mashed with chickpeas, garlic, onion and some mint, as well as other, more mysterious, spices, served slightly warm with some extremely thin pita, different from much of what's around town. A nice version of the eggplant starter, indeed.
And osh? Osh is a traditional soup, one of those dishes where everyone's granny made it differently. It began, for the Bahramis, as a way to use the juice from all those roast beef sandwiches, cooking it with lentils and whole grains like bulgur. Beshid, a man given to thinking a lot about the food he serves his patrons, decided to try a vegetarian version, and eventually even removed the butter in which he cooked the vegetables, to make it fully vegan. The result is dense and hearty, the texture almost pebbly and the flavor complex. Topped with a drizzle of yogurt sauce, whose note of dill brings a little tartness, it's just right for a cold, damp day or night, the sort of dish one likes despite its virtue. And that, of course, crowns Beshid as the Wizard of Osh.
One of the few appetizers we hadn't tried before is ta-deeg, or crispy rice crust. As in many cultures, the crispyrice at the bottom of the pot is a special treat. Natasha's ta-deeg tops triangles of that rice crust with the sauce from a main course, a lamb stew with mustard greens and black-eyed peas, gormeh sabzie. The chewy-crispy texture and the meaty juices from the cilantro-and-parsley seasoned stew were a great combination, although the dish was seriously marred by a great deal of cooking oil pooling on the bottom of the plate. (Interestingly, on the restaurant website, there's a discussion of the basics of this dish, which points out that it is not supposed to be nearly this oily.) However, it's so good that we'll order it again and risk the oil.
One of the classic dishes of Persian cuisine is fessenjoon, a chicken stew sauced with pomegranate juice and finely ground walnuts. Boneless chicken wears the creamy sauce, the meat tender and succulent. Natasha offers a choice of three kinds of rice, saffron rice, a lentil-and-raisin pilaf or biryani rice, but they suggest the lentil-and-raisin with the fessenjoon, and it's a nice contrast, the lentils still having a little firmness, and the raisins offering a quick burst of sweetness to punctuate the sauce.
In theinterests of kabob-ery, we sampled the soltani kabob, along with the saffron rice. Two different kabobs are involved, one known as koubideh, blending ground beef and lamb with vigorous seasonings, the sort of flavor that most meatloaf wished it had, lots of garlic and black pepper, cooked all the way through but still juicy. The other meat was barg kabob, a slice of flank steak. It, too, was cooked all the way through, but stayed very moist and had been marinated into tenderness but not beyond it, to the point where the meat becomes mushy.
All the desserts are made by Hamish, the nice lady zooming around in the kitchen. A slice of mixed berry pie seemed just like what our aunts used to make, after it had been kept in the fridge overnight, always rough on pie crust, but a necessary evil. The Persian ice cream with rosewater and pistachios is always a tasty option, particular if you have a scoop of it in the faludeh, the very different dessert that features rice noodles in a slush scented with lemon and rosewater.
Servers tend to be young and friendly, usually with good knowledge of the menu and the ability to explain the dishes. There's a limited wine list plus full bar service, but one of our chill-weather favorites is Persian tea, flavored with cardamom for extra richness.
The Bahramis have created a Persian oasis, warm and safe and friendly, over many years, and thousands of St. Louisans have enjoyed rest, respite and relaxation, in addition to excellent meals and a warm welcome from the owners.
Cafe Natasha's Kabob International
3200 S. Grand Blvd.
Lunch & Dinner daily
Credit cards: Yes
Wheelchair access: Fair