A taste-bud symphony
Famous Kabob1290 Fulton Ave.
Sacramento, CA 95825
A meal at the Persian restaurant Famous Kabob is a symphony of tart flavors, starting with the block of feta cheese on the complimentary appetizer plate. A bubbled, hubcap-sized, lightly charred flatbread that’s brought ceremoniously to the table serves as a wrap for the cheese and fresh herbs, including cilantro and mint. A small dish of hummus is heavily flavored with tahini, which gives it a lingering bitterness.
The service at Famous Kabob boasts an old-world courtliness in the form of slow-moving, white-haired waiters. Some of them display an enjoyable sassy pride at times—a refreshing alternative to the “Is everything delicious?” type of service.
The next tart onslaught arrives by way of the pickle dish called torshee—cauliflower, carrot, onion and eggplant marinated in red-wine vinegar and dried herbs. It is so sour that I pull a puckered face with each bite, probably because it’s meant more as a condiment than a snack.
Dolmehs, oozing orange grease and filled with ground beef, rice, lentils, and small pasta, contrast lusciously with the rest of the menu, which contains very little oil or greasy meat.
I anticipate that the must-o-khiar here will be very similar to the very rich labneh served nearby at Maalouf’s Taste of Lebanon (1433 Fulton Avenue)—wrong. This house-made yogurt with chopped mint and cucumber is really just that, yogurt, seemingly of the low-fat variety, and way less addictive than labneh. I leave most of it in the bowl.
Most cuisines that use rice as a staple have a crispy, bottom-of-the-pot rice dish—the better to make frugal use of every grain. The Persian take on this is tahdig, where the brown, crunchy layer is formed in a two-step process of rice preparation in which it’s first boiled and then steamed. The layer becomes a cracker to transport the ghormeh sabzi stew that tops it. The ghormeh sabzi, or stewed greens, is thick with a mixture of sautéed parsley, spinach and kidney beans. Mine contains the surprise of a dried lime—or limu Omani—which adds both a sour and musky, earthy flavor. If this stew isn’t tart enough, there’s also a shaker of lemony sumac on each table.
Another stew, bamyeh, is thick with a tomato broth and whole okra. The okra is so savory that the chunks of beef stew meat seem like an afterthought. Zereshk polo, or “jeweled rice,” with chicken is a gem of a dish. Well, not so much the chicken itself, but the barberry-studded basmati rice is heavily flavored with saffron. The barberry is a berry, which is both grown wild and cultivated, and is most commonly used in Persian cooking. It tastes like a less-sour cranberry, and the saffron-yellow fluffy rice grains and rubylike berries are lovely together.
Sometimes it seems like if you’ve had one kebab, you’ve had them all, but I expect better at a place called “Famous Kabob,” and I’m not disappointed. A skewer of juicy steak sports a satisfying chew that will satisfy any nice craving. Another of ground beef is flavored with chopped onion and a hint of cinnamon.
The Cheloe Maheeche, or braised lamb shank in a tomato-and-saffron sauce, tastes best when the sauce has cooled a little bit, and the lamb fat coats the meat like a silken sauce. Don’t let it cool down too much, though. When it solidifies completely, it’s hard not to think of the same layer coating the insides of one’s arteries. Maybe that’s just me.
Iranian cuisine is known for its desserts, including a favorite of mine called faloudeh, a unique dish composed of cold vermicelli and rosewater. Unfortunately, on the night we visit, the restaurant is out of it. The server says all they have is ice cream, and I only get to the nuh sound of “No thanks” before she informs me it’s pistachio-rosewater ice cream. I hear a mental needle scratching across a record and immediately order it. This is a good thing: It has the stretchy consistency of house-made ice cream, and is the yolk-enriched yellow of French vanilla. The rosewater is applied with a light hand, and the dessert is a good balance of sweet, floral and nutty.
Persian food has a subtlety that can make it easy to write off. With its deft use of dried herbs and acidic flavors that brighten the dishes and stimulate the taste buds, these are meals that are quietly hearty and nourishing.