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Bahar Celebrates the Rightness of Spring

March 11, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

Nouruz--the Persian New Year's, which falls on the first day of spring--is upon us this month. What more reason does anybody need to try the wonderful new Persian restaurant Bahar, whose name means spring ?

Bahar might just be the homiest Persian restaurant I have ever eaten in. Oddly, owner Anju Kapoor is a native of New Delhi and owns the well-known Mayur Indian Restaurant, just two blocks down Coast Highway from Bahar. At any rate, she's brought the same exquisite taste displayed there to this new venture.

It's also interesting to note that this Corona del Mar property once belonged to Pilar Wayne, John Wayne's widow. She's the one who installed the ornate stained-glass windows that flood the front room with diffuse light during the day, and they are surely this intimate hideaway's most enduring feature.

But Kapoor has redone the three pint-size dining rooms in subtle fabrics and soft colors, making it even more relaxing and intimate than one recalls it being when it was the Courtyard. The white stucco walls are adorned with mirrors and color photos of the dusty Persian highlands. All the rooms are filled with plants and the middle room, the homiest of the three, has a cheering white brick fireplace.

None of this would mean much had Kapoor not had the good sense to bring in Manouch and Sohila Rastegar to run the show. This young Persian couple are serious about food--just how serious I realized when I ordered garlic torshi , the pickled garlic that Persians eat as a sour complement to their rich meat dishes. "The torshi will be ready in about two weeks," said Manouch. The man means business.

Because Manouch is from Teheran and his wife comes from Iran's north, near the Caspian Sea, the two also bring a different perspective about their native cuisine to their work. Unusual, rustic dishes such as jujeh shekemi (chicken stuffed with walnuts, raisins and tart barberries) or poshtezik (a sesame-pistachio brittle that makes an inspired companion to a glass of spicy black tea) come from Sohila's home turf.

The couple have big ideas about introducing other dishes Sohila learned from her grandmother--like grilled quail marinated in orange juice and yogurt, and kofteh berengi , which are balls of meat, rice, split peas . . . and whole prunes. It works for me.

Those are only a few indicators of the couple's intention to bring a home-style dimension to Southern California's Iranian restaurant cuisine, which more often than not is dominated by simple kebabs and pilafs. Their effort is noble indeed. (But leave room for the kebabs anyway.)

By all means start with the appetizer mundanely named combo platter. It's a large plate filled with four hearty dishes: salad oliveh , dolmeh , kashk-o-bademjan (spelled bademjoon on the menu) and kotlet , which the menu refers to as a Persian chicken patty.

I'm not a big fan of the salad oliveh , a sort of mayo-rich potato salad mixed with peas and chicken meat. It's tasty all right, but it reminds me of something you'd get in a Russian hotel (it takes its name from an old Franco-Russian restaurant, Olivier), and it takes up valuable room in your stomach. The dolmeh are far better: grape leaves densely stuffed with a meaty rice filling and the surprise addition of yellow split peas.

The kashk-o-bademjan is an oily eggplant puree with a thickened yogurt topping, a version I'd describe as workmanlike. The fried chicken patties, on the other hand, are pure magic. They are so light and crisp they literally disintegrate on contact with your tongue.

My favorite among the classic Persian stews and rice dishes would be baghali polo , a fragrant pilaf, faintly green from fresh dill, mixed with lima beans. It's served here, as elsewhere, with a tender roast lamb shank.

A close second would be fesenjan , a chicken stew notable for its rich sweet-sour sauce of walnuts and pomegranate juice. It could be called the Persian national dish, but it never seems to be as good in a restaurant as it is at someone's home. This one falls a little short too, despite a properly grainy sauce. I'm hard pressed to say why, but I'm sure it has something to do with the kind of long, slow cooking only home cooks want to do.

There are plenty of other good stewed dishes as well. Bademjan is fried eggplant in a rich tomato-saffron sauce, with large pieces of stew beef hidden underneath. Albalu polo is a pilaf of chicken and sour cherries.

You probably know about the meaty kebabs all Persian restaurants serve, such as the plump, juicy chicken kebab, kebab barg of filet mignon, the ground beef kebab kubideh that looks like a foot-long hamburger, and of course the obligatory lamb shish kebab. All the kebabs rest on a small hill of rice and are eaten with somagh , a pleasantly sour condiment made from sumac leaves.

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