GUSTATORY DELIGHTS IN ‘TEHRANGELES’
Shamshiri, 1916 Westwood Blvd., Westwood. (213) 474-1410. Open daily. No credit cards, no checks, no exceptions. Lunch or dinner for two $15-25.
Take a Sunday stroll down the east side of Westwood Boulevard just south of Wilshire and you will notice a curious thing: signs in Arabic script. But don’t be fooled by appearances; the signs are in Farsi, the language of Iran.
This section of Westwood has been affectionately dubbed “Tehrangeles” by its Iranian denizens. Move in for a closer look and you will be rewarded by visual and gustatory delights. There are little bazaars, sweet shops selling sticky homemade pastries, and a number of restaurants.
Iranian food is almost always prepared by the women, and the process is often arduous. That is why, despite the longtime presence of Iranian students in America, it wasn’t until the more recent arrival of their mothers that we had authentic Persian restaurants in Los Angeles. Many homey little places are now operating, but their flagship is undoubtedly the more polished Shamshiri, which is almost always filled with Iranians eating enormous portions of food.
When you enter Shamshiri, you won’t have an immediate sense that you are in a Middle Eastern restaurant. The room is painted a stark, neutral white, and there is only a hint of the Byzantine on a back wall. But then you get a whiff of beef and lamb and a noseful of Persian spices and you know that it’s for real.
We were first told Shamshiri meant “house special,” and later on “special rice.” The real significance of the name was provided by my Persian friend Rafik, who informed me that Shamshir means sword, and is a common family name in Iran. Shamshir’s Place, Shamshiri in Farsi, was a famous restaurant in Tehran before the fall of the Shah. The Westwood name pays homage to the original, sort of like “Maxim’s . . . of Bakersfield” might.
The menu is small but satisfying. You could begin with one of the generous appetizers like shallot yogurt or panier o’sabzy , goat cheese with mint leaves and leek stalks. Bigger appetites might choose dolmeh , garlicky grape leaves stuffed with meat and rice, or borany , a sauteed eggplant variant of a Turkish dish known as imam bayildi , or “the imam fainted.” (Ostensibly because it was so delicious).
Next you might try one of their pureed soups. One day we sampled a thick mushroom barley, tinted bright yellow by a thimbleful of saffron. Another day we had ashemast , a green potage of spinach, parsley, cilantro, leek, and other herbs. Both are enormous.
The main dishes are large enough for two meals. First-timers are advised to begin with a kabob; my favorite is the lamb, which brings what must be nearly a pound of lamb that has been marinated in a Persian mixture of coriander, garlic, and other fragrant spices. After considerable broiling (this chef is not responsible for meats cooked less than medium well), it is brought to the table on an outrageously big pile of saffron-garnished basmati rice. The Iranian typically douses the plate with somak, a dried leaf, which is brown, pungently sour, and a slightly acquired taste. Somak appears in little shakers on every table, so you can, of course, somak to taste.
The more curious diner is advised to try one of the stews or daily specials. Sometimes there is a green bean rice--filled with tiny pieces of steak and red from aromatic spices like cinnamon and clove. It has a wonderful home-cooked taste. Another really Persian dish is fesenjon , chicken marinated in a walnut and pomegranate paste until it turns a deep red. The chicken is as tender as any chicken could be, and the sauce is sweetly redolent of the mysterious flavors of Central Asia.
Perhaps my taste buds have not evolved enough to appreciate the torshi , or pickled vegetables. They are too sour for a Western palate. I also had trouble with ghorme sabzi, a murky, overcooked stew of spinach and beef, which seemed to me like an inferior version of their delicious soups. Dough (pronounced doog) is a drink tasting like plain yogurt and Perrier shaken together; as Shamshiri has no alcohol, the exotic beverages are limited to this or the muddy Turkish coffee.
Turkish influence pops up in almost all Middle Eastern desserts, and Shamshiri’s are no exception. One of the friendly waiters informed me that, as all desserts are made on the premises, many might not be available. Still, if you are lucky, you can choose between Falovdeh, a noodle dessert suspended in rosewater flavored Italian shaved ice, Persian ice cream chock full of pistachio and fragrant spices, or the more familiar baghlava , here done with mixed ground walnuts and pistachios.
If you need a walk after your meal, be sure to do one thing. Avoid those pastry shops on Westwood Boulevard. They are awfully hard to resist, even after a big lunch.