The city of Orange may not be renowned as a hotbed of Middle Eastern cooking, but that could change. Last week, dining at two of the city's more unlikely hot spots--an Egyptian storefront cafe called Pharaoh's, and Darya, which Iranian friends had been touting as Orange County's best Persian restaurant--I was delighted at what I found.
Pharaoh's is by far the simpler, a small family restaurant owned by an Egyptian-born chef named Selim Selim, located in the same mini-mall which houses the redoutable Caffe Piemonte. Selim's wife takes the cash while his daughter, invariably in residence after school is over, doodles on the paper place mats up by the cash register. The only real atmosphere is the wallpaper, embossed with hundreds of mock hieroglyphs and images of Nefertiti.
The food at Pharaoh's is somewhat rough-hewn but highly seasoned and tasty. Ful mudammas is essentially boiled fava beans--an underrated legume currently enjoying notoriety thanks to a movie character named Hannibal Lecter--mashed with pale yellow olive oil, lemon juice and garlic. Egyptians smear it on hot pita bread and eat it for breakfast.
Selim's hummus is something better, perhaps the best one I've tasted in California. Hummus is a dip, a smooth puddle of pureed garbanzo beans mixed with tahini, a creamy ground sesame dressing. It's normally eaten as an appetizer but I recommend making a meal of it by mixing it with the house tabbouleh. The combination of chopped parsley, diced tomato and bulgur wheat with hummus is one of the world's most appealing duos.
If you want something more substantial, most of Selim's entrees fill the bill (and often include a side of hummus as well). Shorba farruj (which, it turns out, does not come with hummus) is described on the menu as "hearty chicken stew" but really is more of a soup, and when you lift a spoonful to your lips, you get a blast of clove and cinnamon that would part the Red Sea. Proceed with caution.
The combination dinner is far more diplomatic. This is a huge dish, with several of Selim's specialties clustered together. You'll find marinated filet mignon in kebab form (shawerma), chunks of blackened, broiled chicken (lulu kebab), a sort of tubular hamburger roasted on a skewer (kofta), hot grape leaves stuffed with meat and rice and even fried kibbeh, probably my favorite Middle Eastern dish. Kibbeh looks like a junior version of a corn dog except the shell is made from bulgur wheat held together with a little meat paste. Inside, in this case, there is an aromatic meat mixture.
Pharaoh's is inexpensive. Lunch specials are $2.99 to $5.25. Entrees are $5.95 to $8.95.
Darya is something else altogether, something I would describe as grand-scale ethnic.
It's quite an elegant room, handsomely coordinated in maroon and white (the carpet and table cloths are maroon, the walls and the leather on the crescent-shaped booths are white). The glass-topped tables routinely are decked with fresh flowers and little shakers of sumac, the tart dried herb that Persians sprinkle on just about everything. Lots of expensive-looking paintings and Persian artifacts have been sprinkled around, too, giving the place an almost a regal bearing. It's a far cry from fundamentalism, at any rate.
The cooking upholds the standards of the best Persian restaurants on L.A.'s Westside, and a few dishes compare favorably. Because this food is so rich and heavy, there are a variety of herbal and sour dishes to help you digest it. This, to my mind, is where Darya really shines.
I ordered panir o sabzi on the suggestion of the waitress and found I couldn't stop eating it. It's a plate of basil, mint, watercress, green onion and radish, slightly soaked in salt water to reduce the bite. You crave these condiments when you adhere to a Persian diet, mixing them with crumbled Bulgarian feta cheese and wrapping everything in a square of parchment-like pita bread.
You also might want to try the mast, one of the thickest yogurts around. Mast o musir is my favorite, the one mixed with chopped shallot. It's divinely sour, great when smeared on the lighter kebabs.
The lightest kebab here is made from delicious, flaky Lake Michigan whitefish. The chef manages to sear the surface nicely without drying the fish out, and this kebab easily is the equal of any you'll find in Los Angeles. The other kebabs also are exemplary: chelo soltani, made from filet mignon, and chelo barg, a long skewer of spicy hamburger meat, lamb and chicken.
But what I'm really in love with here are the various pilafs (called polo in Farsi). Darya lets you order them on the side at nominal extra charge, the better to complement the kebabs and stews the restaurant normally heaps onto plain boiled rice.