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Sensuous Alborz Takes Persian Food to Zenith

August 12, 1993|MAX JACOBSON | Max Jacobson is a free-lance writer who reviews restaurants weekly for The Times Orange County Edition.

Alborz is a tiny cafe named for a rugged mountain range in northern Iran. It is fitting that this Laguna Hills restaurant represents the peak of Persian cooking in South County.

Perhaps I'm being stingy with my praise. Alborz's torshi (pungent pickled vegetables) alone would make me come back. I can't remember when I've had better tah dig or fesenjan , two Persian classics that require careful preparation and rarely impress outside private homes.

The restaurant belongs to a brother and sister, Sayed and Sussan Miremadi. Sussan, the hostess, has spent the past 15 years in Stockholm and Lausanne, Switzerland. Sayed you may not get to meet right now--he's putting the finishing touches on Ferdussi, his new South Coast Plaza restaurant that, he says, will change people's ideas about Persian cuisine. (Loosely translated, Ferdussi means "paradise.")

Some of you may remember this location when it was another Persian restaurant, Kou-Che. It's a modest place all right, stuck in a mini-mall next to a Persian store called Mediterranean Grocery (where it's possible to buy condiments, cookies, pistachios and other items vital to the Persian palate).

The Miremadis haven't changed the basic appearance much. The space is still a cool stucco courtyard highlighted by white walls and protruding bricks with an overhead trellis of silk plants running the perimeter of the ceiling. But they have taken out the center fountain and replaced the tile patio tables with smaller ones of plain Formica. Now there is more room, and they're going to need it.

Start a meal here with a couple of the good appetizers, but exercise restraint if you are a first-time visitor to a Persian restaurant. The yogurt and raw vegetable appetizers, which have names such as paneer sabzi and mast o masir , do cleanse and refresh the palate. Many others appetizers, such as tah dig , kashk o bademjan and dolmeh , have the odd distinction of being heartier than a good number of the main courses.

You'll be initiated with a basket piled up with flat squares of the Persian bread called lavash , an onion and some wrapped pats of butter.

Paneer sabzi at Alborz consists of two large bricks of creamy Bulgarian feta cheese (surprisingly light in the salt department), a heap of shelled walnuts, a few radishes and a colorful pile of fresh mint, cilantro, basil and tarragon. (The tarragon turns up later in the vinegary house salad dressing, described on the menu as Caesar, but really closer in spirit to green goddess.)

Of all the yogurt preparations, mast o masir is my favorite. It's just creamy yogurt and chopped shallots, but it makes a trusty companion to either light appetizers or the kebabs you'll eat later on. Kashk of bademjan is a sauteed eggplant puree flavored with a dried, thickened yogurt and grizzled onions. It's nearly always a good measure of a Persian restaurant--when it's good, so is everything else. Here, it is superb.

Bigger eaters can cut teeth on tah dig , squares of crunchy golden brown rice that have literally been frazzled to a crunch around the sides of an iron pan. At Alborz, pieces of the rice come topped with ghormeh (an herb mixture), gheimeh (yellow lentils in a rich tomato sauce) and chunks of stewed beef. Another rich appetizer is shekam pareh , a stuffed eggplant treat similar to the Turkish imam bayildi , which literally means "the imam fainted." The difference is that this version has ground meat in the stuffing, meaning the imam would probably have stayed down for a longer count.

About this time, you can ask Sussan Miremadi to bring you a dish of these remarkable torshi , the tart pickled vegetables that are eaten to cut the richness of Persian dishes. If she sees you are serious, she may even bring you a complementary dish of the pickled garlic, individual cloves with a penetrating flavor you won't soon forget.

All dinners come with salad or a choice of filling Persian soups. The barley soup is your basic comfort food: barley, beef, vegetables and Persian spices. Ash-e reshteh , the other soup, is a real exotic. I like to think of this soup as the Persian pasta e fagioli , but it's much more complex. This version has pinto beans, spinach, dried yogurt, onions and strange squiggly noodles as well as a strongly herbal flavor. Careful you don't fill up on it, because you'll want to save room for the first-rate main courses.

The undisputed star is fesenjan , a chicken cooked in a magenta-colored pomegranate and walnut sauce. In every other local restaurant, this sauce tends to be tiring on the palate; not here. Alborz makes the dish with a rich, grainy sauce that surely contains more walnut that pomegranate. When you mix it with rice, it is positively ambrosial.

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