Persia most pleasurable
Rancho Cordova, CA 95742
Shahrzad comes to the West courtesy of translations of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. Shahrzad, often spelled Sheherazade or Scheherazade, is the new queen to King Shahryar, who marries a virgin each day and dispatches his former conquests by lopping off their heads. Eager to keep hers, Shahrzad entrances the king with tales, each more enthralling than the last, to keep him interested and herself alive.
Her name, preceded by “M.,” graces the marquee of a Rancho Cordova restaurant that boasts the best Persian fare in town. How stiff is the competition? Shahrzad’s orange stucco, Spanish-tiled exterior is more Mexican than Middle Eastern. The interior, with its sienna walls, copies of impressionist paintings and “Panetteria” sign in the second dining room suggests suite 125 was previously peddling pasta rather than Persian.
If there’s one common thread to Persian cooking, it should be saffron. (Ba-da-bing. Ba-da-boom.) The most obvious constant is basmati rice. Gobs of the stuff. Veritable hillocks.
And if basmati is the denominator, then the most common numerator is stuff on sticks. Can’t ignore it: Meat on skewers is central to Persian cuisine. Beef, lamb, chicken, game hen. If hunks of something—except pork—can be speared and wedged between squares of bell pepper and onion, game on.
Another given is the après appetizer plate, which appears at both lunch and dinner. Interestingly, what shows up at Shahrzad before anything else except water is pretty close to what gets plopped on the table before the pho arrives at a Vietnamese restaurant. Sabzi it’s called, and it’s so darn de rigueur it’s not even on the menu. There are sprigs of mint, basil, cilantro, pita triangles and a chaw of panir—Persian feta—all of which can be combined in any number of novel ways. Would that some of the pickled jalapeños and onion on most Vietnamese Lazy Susans were included.
But while sabzi and basmati may be essential and stuff-on-sticks central—witness Shahrzad’s 18 dinner kabob options—these do not constitute the universe of Persian cooking.
The Persia most pleasurable to explore is soups, salads and stews. At least as Shahrzad delivers them. Crisp and refreshing is the brimming bowl of Shirazi salad, well worth the extra $2 charged to enjoy with an entree; its little-fingernail size chunks of cucumber, tomato and onion dressed with a more red wine vinegar/less oil dressing. The salad’s lightness counterbalances the modest heat of the gheymeh—a stew of beef chunks, split yellow peas, oranged by turmeric and emboldened by half a dried lime. Adrift in the stew, the lime looks like a largish mushroom. One fork-full instantly dispels that fallacy. The patchwork of fried potato sticks on top provides crisp punctuation to the creamy sauce, although when ladled onto the basmati, there’s the lingering impression a starch O.D. is imminent. That feeling is less pronounced with the tater-free eggplant gheymeh bodemjan, although that dish is also crazy with split peas.
Rhea, a dinner server, elevates Shahrzad. Her smile is almost conspiratorial, as though she’s eager to aid someone cliff dive into a culinary unknown.
She’s also a mind reader. The zereshk polo, with its barberry-laced basmati, intrigues, but lamb is more enticing than the menu’s offered chicken. “Lamb shank instead?” Rhea asks. “It’s better with lamb.” Heart be still. Not only is the dish better—the rice’s raisinesque sweetness ping-ponging smashingly with the tomatoey sauce—but the lamb is flawless, dropping effortlessly from the bone. The accompanying soup, another Rhea recommendation, is named after the establishment and does Shahrzad proud: peas, carrots, cilantro and potatoes in a brisk but not biting broth that’s not as tart as avgolemono but definitely in the same ZIP code.
One thing that isn’t part of Persian cooking is hot sauce. Cholula is proffered when seeking a flame throw for the gheymeh. Persian food is made to share. Experience Shahrzad with a friend. Insist on one of Rhea’s tables.