Anyone unfamiliar with the meaty kebabs, hearty stews and honeyed desserts of Iranian food is in for a treat. It's a cuisine for the very hungry, where large hunks of meat run into mountains of fluffy rice, but it's also a cuisine for the sensualist, with fragrant herbs, pickles that bite and the exotic perfume of fruits and flowers.
Orange County's Iranian restaurants are surprisingly good, and incidentally surprisingly cheap. Dekadeh, a mini-mall pink palace in the city of Orange, provides a good introduction to this food.
The name means "small village" in Farsi and the decor is quite simple. About the only bit of atmosphere comes from a few framed color prints depicting nomadic life on the rocky, parched landscape of southern Iran. (From a distance, they look like covers of Louis L'Amour westerns.)
Lunch is the best time to come here for a first visit. That's when the restaurant serves one of the most generous buffets in the entire county, encompassing more than half of the restaurant's menu. Uniformed waiters lift the metal covers off the steam trays as you pass through the line, announcing the dishes proudly by their Farsi language names.
The one familiar course is a salad of coarsely sliced cucumber, tomato and iceberg lettuce, and it might seem the logical place to begin. But make sure to leave the house dressing off. It tastes like what you get in plastic sacks on airlines, and it will dampen your appetite for the adventures that wait.
And they really are adventures. First you come to a few stews: gheymeh, flavored with yellow split peas and a spicy tomato puree, and fesenjan, with mashed walnut and a pomegranate sauce. The gheymeh , made with veal, is delicious and not at all sour as it can often be. But the fesenjan is a real star, the deep crimson sweet and sour sauce marrying perfectly with boiled chicken.
Then there are wonderful kebabs, slowly marinated meats served off the skewer such as chicken or beef chunks or small lamb loin chops, tender enough to cut with a fork. Eat these with any one of the three rice dishes the restaurant serves: the green bean and stewed tomato rice called lubia polo , baghala polo with its chopped dill and lima bean flavoring, or the tart, exotic barberry and saffron rice, zereshk polo .
There's also fluffy pita bread, fresh raw onion (to chew on boldly between mouthfuls of kebab) and some well-crafted pistachio baklava (which is not included in the buffet price). This buffet covers most of the menu, the only significant missing parties being a shish kebab where tomatoes alternate with chunks of meat and some traditional side dishes such as the sharp vinegar pickles called torshi and a side dish/appetizer called kashk bademjan, which is sliced eggplant topped with baked yogurt. For those, you have to come back at dinner.
Dekadeh is inexpensive. Its regal lunch buffet is only $7.95, and nothing on the dinner menu is over $9.95.
The Tea Room--a large, slightly garish dining room overlooking the Newport Beach Public Golf Course--was a French restaurant for a while but is back in the hands of former owner Hussein Zahidi, and as a result several Persian favorites have crept back onto its small but self-assured menu.
You could begin with one or two of the menu appetizers, such as the greasy onion rings or the flavorless, over-battered popcorn shrimp. You could begin to doubt the good things you've heard about Iranian restaurants.
So get right into the meaty kebabs: plump, juicy chicken kebab, the filet mignon kebab barg or kubideh, a ground beef kebab that looks like a foot-long hamburger. All these grilled meats are served with the mandatory mound of rice, and the servers automatically bring sumac, a tart, purple-brown Persian flavoring (it's the dried berries of the sumac plant) to sprinkle over them. These kebabs are the real article, nicely marinated and perfectly broiled over a flame.
The rest of the menu is non-Iranian: a first-rate prime rib, mesquite-broiled salmon with a nice cream sauce, even chicken Marsala. Friday and Saturday evenings there are several Persian dishes on the menu that don't appear during the week--eggplant puree and stuffed grape leaves to name two--and after 10 p.m., Iranians make up a higher proportion of the clientele.
This restaurant serves a buffet lunch, too. It is best described as international, but you will find some Persian dishes on it. Dishes range from chicken enchiladas to kebabs and stews, and there are always at least six mixed salads to choose from. At $4.95, it is a phenomenal value.
The Tea Room is inexpensive, and an excellent value at dinner. Appetizers are $2.95 to $6.95. Complete dinners are $6.95 to $9.95.
1722 N. Tustin St., Orange.
Open every day from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.
All major cards.
THE TEA ROOM
3100 Irvine Ave., Newport Beach.
Open for lunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday through Friday; for dinner Monday through Thursday from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday till 2 a.m.