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Opulent Setting for Casual Mood and Indulgent Persian Cooking


SANTA ANA — Darya means "ocean" in Persian, and the name seems appropriate here. This vast new place, more than 15,000 square feet, is Southern California's most opulent and ambitious Persian restaurant.

This is Darya's third location in 10 years. The restaurant began in Orange as a modest but elegant dining room. Now in South Coast Plaza Village, formerly Horikawa, a design metamorphosis has taken place.

Walking though the artful wood and cut-glass doors is like entering the grand lobby of a European hotel. The theme is neoclassical: marble pillars, ornate glass chandeliers, objets d'art such as vases and paintings, potted ferns and designer-cloth-covered dining room chairs.

Overhead is a sweeping balcony and a banquet room for private parties. Waiters dress in tuxedos. Cocktail music plays loudly. Every table has fresh orchids.

None of which disrupts the air of informality. Despite stiff pretensions, the place attracts families, women in chadors (Persian for a woman's traditional head covering) and clumps of men who sit around drinking tea out of tall glasses with curved handles. So relax and enjoy the indulgent cooking, big on grilled meats, rice casseroles and sour vegetables.

Appetizers are generally fine, but a couple turn out quite unexpectedly. The menu advertises khiar-shoor as delicious imported pickles, but what arrives is a pile of tiny sour gherkins, a few black olives out of a can, tomato slices and greens--just what you'd get on a Midwestern relish tray. Chicken wings are not described. They turn out to be nothing more than Buffalo wings, without the blue cheese dressing.

Don't miss kashk-e-bademjoon and dolmeh, even though both are mightily filling. Dolmeh are the densest stuffed grape leaves I've ever tasted, browned around the edges and stuffed with a filling of ground meat, rice, yellow split peas and tarragon. Darya's kashk-e-bademjoon is masterful, nothing like the oily eggplant puree served in most Persian restaurants. These are three or four whole sauteed eggplants topped with kashk--a thickened yoghurt--and mint, dried sumac leaves and browned minced lamb.

Paneer o'sabzi is a plateful of walnuts, crumbled Bulgarian feta cheese and raw basil, mint, watercress, green onion and radish. The herbs are soaked in saltwater to reduce their bite. Mix the herbs with the cheese and walnuts, then wrap everything in squares of the parchment-like pita bread called lavash, served in a basket on the side.

Mast is a thick yoghurt but wonderfully light on the palate. The yoghurt is fine by itself, but when mixed with chopped shallot it becomes mast o'mosier, and divinely sour. Mix the yoghurt with chopped cucumber and mint and you have mast o'khiar, a perfect accompaniment to the lighter kebabs.

The lightest kebab is fish: beautifully blackened chunks of Lake Michigan whitefish. The chef sears the surface without drying it out, and the flesh turns out sweet and mild. Shrimp kebab is also light--three ruddy shrimp (from food coloring, one guesses) broiled with tomato, onion and green bell pepper.

Beef, lamb and chicken kebabs come in more than a dozen variations, each with fluffy basmati rice. Stars of the broiler are lamb kebab (choopani in Persian) and naderi kebab, broiled chunks of tenderloin. Imagine a skewer full of perfectly trimmed baby lamb chops, with a little T-bone in the middle, redolent of an exquisite marinade and expertly blackened around the edges. The tenderloin is amazing as well.

Barg is made from filet mignon, although it is not nearly as tender or flavorful as naderi kebab. Chicken kebab is fine, crispy on the outside, well done (as this cooking style demands) and slightly less intense in flavor than the red meats. Koobideh--tubular burgers that children seem to love--is made with beef or chicken; sprinkle it with piquant dried sumac (on the table) and the flavors intensify.

There are many other main courses. Polo is the Persian word for rice, here applied to pilafs in various form. Zereshk polo is a simple dish that combines a tiny, sour berry called the barberry with saffron rice and boiled chicken. Adas polo is a festive mound of saffron rice with raisins and dates. Baghali polo is heartier, a mix of fresh dill and lima bean eaten with boiled lamb shank.

How about a Persian stew? Classic fesenjon is chicken in a grainy, magenta-colored pomegranate walnut sauce, one of the richest sauces in the cooking world. Another possibility is gheimeh bademjoon, split yellow peas with fried eggplant and onions in a rich tomato sauce.

Darya does compromise authenticity: Most Persian desserts are heavily perfumed with rose water, but these are toned down considerably. Finger-shaped pistachio baklava tastes of cardamom. Bamyeh are rich and honeyed pastries ideal with spiced Persian tea. Rulet is of yellow cake and whipped cream, just as you'd get in the grande salle of a European hotel at midafternoon.

Darya is moderate to high-end moderate. Appetizers are $2.95 to $8.95. Kebabs are $8.95 to $19.95. Daily specials are $8.95 to $9.95.


* 1611 Sunflower Ave., Santa Ana (in South Coast Plaza Village).

* (714) 557-6600.

* Lunch and dinner 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

* All major cards.

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