Good food, no waiting
Rancho Cordova, CA 95742
When we set off on a recent evening, we had a complicated plan that involved dropping our daughter off at my mom’s house for babysitting, getting her to sleep there, going out to dinner and then hitting a friend’s evening party. My husband was worried about the timing, however, and whether we might have to wait at the restaurant. “Do we have a reservation?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
“What kind of place is it?”
“Persian,” I said.
He looked relieved. “I guess we won’t have to wait, then.”
He was right. I have never had to wait at any of the growing number of Persian, Afghani or other Middle Eastern places in Sacramento; they’re usually dispiritingly empty. The number of these restaurants is increasing, and they don’t deserve this fate. The food is usually fresh and interesting, and the welcome you find is warm—and not just because you might be the only person walking through the door.
This was certainly the case at Shahrzad, a palatially large—if rather gaudy—place with an unfortunate location on Sunrise Boulevard, just south of Highway 50. When we walked in, the place was empty, though another party was right behind us, and the restaurant filled up a bit over the course of the evening. As soon as we sat down, our shyly welcoming server plied us with a plate of fresh herbs, radishes and feta cheese, along with a basket of soft, warm pita bread—a very nice start to the meal.
As we nibbled, we looked at the menu and tried not to look at the restaurant’s truly awful art. Instead, we focused on the appetizers, where the choice was clear: The combination plate would give us several tastes of different things, including dolmas; cucumber-yogurt dip; a fresh chopped salad; and something called kashkeh bodemjan, a garlicky fried-eggplant dip mixed with whey. I found it a little oily for my taste, though it had an intriguingly smoky flavor.
I preferred the dolmas, with their acidic grape leaves and savory filling. The crunchy chopped salad was juicy and sharply oniony, a pleasant counterpoint to the dolmas; the latter’s filling was soft to the occasional point of mushiness. The tart cucumber-yogurt mixture, called musto khiar, was especially delicious. Shahrzad makes its own yogurt, and it’s quite tasty. It also shone in a glass of house-made doogh, a yogurt-mint drink; it’s not carbonated, but it had a hint of tongue-prickling fizz and a savory flavor that prompted my husband to compare it to a white version of V8.
The long list of entrees includes several of the usual suspects found on most Middle Eastern menus: beef and lamb kabobs, chicken soltani and the like, all accompanied by basmati rice. My husband gravitated to a combination plate of skewered beef koobedeh and soltani, ground and seasoned. On the plate, it wasn’t clear which was which, but I preferred the spiced one. It had a more complex, delicious flavor and was moist and juicy. The other was a bit dry. The accompanying rice was perfectly fluffy: a pile of perfectly cooked, aromatic individual grains, with grilled tomato buried within.
The menu also offers a number of dishes that are unique to Persian (or, to be more contemporary, Iranian) cuisine. Among them was the zereshk polo, which I ordered, described on the menu as braised chicken breast or thigh in tomato-saffron sauce, with red currants and basmati rice. I asked for thigh meat, but they had made it that day with the breast. Skinless but cooked on the bone, it was extremely tender and not at all dry; the texture was almost as if it had been butter-poached. It took a while to find that out, however, because the chicken was buried under a gorgeous, enormous heap of rice in variegated saffron colors, dotted with tiny, slightly shriveled, garnet-colored red currants. It looked like a close-up of a pointillist painting of an autumn scene.
I was disappointed that the chicken was not actually presented in a tomato-saffron sauce. It was nicely flavored with it, but I had expected a saucy, stew-like dish, based on the menu description. Still, the rice had a nice buttery taste (albeit an odd aroma like movie-popcorn butter). It was slightly sweetened, and the tiny currants added lovely, tart bursts of flavor. It was quite unlike anything in the American culinary lexicon, and I was glad to have tried it.
I was intrigued by the house-made Persian ice cream, of which the server spoke highly, but we had to move on to our next stop by that point. I’d love to go back, however, and try the pastries and dessert items. Several of the other customers were greeted by name and with delighted cries of “Good to see you again!” Something tells me it wouldn’t take much to become a welcome regular. The food isn’t perfect, but it’s interesting and unusual, and it deserves a wider audience than it so far seems to have.