Who could resist a restaurant with a name like Chattanooga, especially one billing itself as Middle Eastern?
In truth, Chattanooga features solid, middle-of-the-road Persian cooking, despite the sign’s allusions. If you’re wondering why a Persian restaurant would name itself after a city in Tennessee, here is a partial explanation: During the days of the shah, Chattanooga was a popular restaurant in Tehran, belonging to the man who owns this property. Whatever inspired him to name a place in Tehran after Chattanooga, I can’t say.
Most likely you’ll dine in the dark, almost Byzantine dining room, though on pleasant evenings you can choose one of four tables on a side patio. The restaurant is a free-standing cottage with green awnings; inside it is all mirrored columns and atmospheric excess. This Euro-disco look, complete with parquet dance floor and raised stage, was the rage during Iran’s charge toward modernization. Now the style seems little more than a sentimental attempt to lure back old customers.
If you come early in the week, the place is as empty as a Beirut nightclub. Thursday through Sunday things are different. There is an international dance band, offering the transcendental experience of ethno music forms.
Food is abundant and festive--lots of rich appetizers and main dishes. A few of Chattanooga’s appetizers, such as hummus and dolmeh , are eaten across the region. But the main dishes, despite self-proclaimed ties to countries such as Hungary and Bulgaria, are mostly variations on kebabs and rice, Persian restaurant staples.
Start with the substantial, tomato-based barley soup or the eggplant dip, kashk bademjan . The dip, a hot eggplant dish made with kashk (a condensed yogurt), has a richness that makes you swear you are eating meat.
The stuffed grape leaves, dolmeh, are also quite good. Persian grape leaves are always stuffed with a dense mixture of ground meat and rice. I call them finger food, but two or three are quite filling.
And don’t fill up on the delicious toasted pita bread, good with the yogurt-and-cucumber dip known as mast o’ khiar.
Chattanooga’s kebab list contains all the major Persian standbys, barg , koobideh , chicken and lots of other good things, every one of them flanked by a mountain of fluffy, basmati rice with a yellow saffron topping. Choopani , or lamb kebab, has to be the star of the broiler. Imagine a skewer full of perfectly trimmed cubed lamb, redolent of an exquisite marinade and browned around the edges.
Barg is this lamb dish’s beef equivalent, made from filet mignon, although it is not nearly as tender or tasty as the choopani. (The pieces are smaller, too.)
The chicken kebab is just fine, crisp on the outside, well-done (as this cooking style demands) and slightly less intense in flavor than the red meats. I wouldn’t bother with koobideh . The tubular hamburger is nothing more than poor man’s barg , altogether lacking in the spice department. The same goes for the tasteless chicken koobideh , unless you sprinkle either with dried sumac, the piquant ground leaf in a glass shaker on your table.
A few dishes provide relief from the kebab syndrome, or at least an option. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to get sour cherry rice, albaloo polo , a red-yellow flurry of interesting flavors and textures. Fesenjoon --the Persian stew of chicken, pomegranate and walnut--is on the menu, though unavailable during my visits. But there’s always ghormeh sabzi , a slightly bitter stew of beef chunks, greens and fenugreek, a spinach relative that provides a powerful kick. I find this last one an acquired taste.
Chattanooga has a big dessert list of pastries and ice creams, in the grand tradition of the Persian nightspot. Pastries, such as the pistachio-topped baklava from a local bakery, are nothing memorable. Ice cream creations run to things like sweetened coffee drinks, or the Chattanooga plate, which turns out to be an all-American banana split. See the logic?
WHERE AND WHEN
* Location: Chattanooga, 811 E. Colorado Blvd., Glendale.
* Suggested Dishes: eggplant dip, $3.95; dolmeh , $3.95; albaloo polo , $8.95; lamb kebab, $9.50; barg , $9.50.
* Hours: Lunch 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 5 p.m.-2 a.m. daily.
* Price: Dinner for two, $20-$40. Full bar. Parking lot. American Express, MasterCard and Visa accepted.
* Call: (818) 242-3334.