I don't know if it was a typo on the assignment sheet or some bizarre kind of dyslexia on my part, but I could have sworn I was asked to review "Café Shiraz, a Peruvian restaurant." So when I and my three teen companions walked into the Corryville establishment and heard what sounded like zither music and smelled the unmistakable scent of Middle Eastern spices, I knew I was mistaken. Persian food. Suddenly the name made more sense.
There's something thrilling, in a way, about eating food from the Middle East during this Gulf War. Whenever I turn on the news and hear them talking about the Euphrates River or the Tigris Valley, I'm immediately transported back to grade school when we learned that this area, Iraq and Iran, was the cradle of civilization. The region and its history inspire awe and respect, now mixed with some fear and anxiety.
And this food, or food like it, these smells, these spices, have been used in Iran and Iraq for centuries. Maybe our soldiers are eating variations on it now. Who knows? Suddenly this seemed much more interesting than the cuisine of Peru.
Let me say right off the bat that atmosphere-wise, Shiraz has nothing going for it. The restaurant, which opened in December, looks as deserted and bare -- almost forlorn -- as it might have the day it opened. Maybe even a few days before it opened. The walls sport artwork that I'd call minimal, only that would be an overstatement. They do pipe pretty music over the speakers, the kind of thing Rumi might have listened to while hunkering down to write another passionate ode to Shams of Tabriz. But the stark lighting and utter lack of décor make for almost a shock when you walk in. So be forewarned.
Similarly, the service is, shall we say, basic. I mean by that that the waitress was kind and attractive, but she didn't speak much English and didn't seem to understand any of our queries about the food. Still, she was attentive, prompt and well meaning, and she brought us everything we asked for, so I really don't know what I am complaining about.
My companions -- three teenage young men, aged 14, 14 and 17 -- provided a kind of testosterone-charged mixture of challenges, comedy and commentary that made it hard to concentrate on the food, initially, but in the end we all agreed that at least the savory dishes were quite delicious.
For starters, the guys could not get over the fact that the soup and salad appetizers were free of charge. That decided them right there. Free stuff to eat is their version of "You had me at hello." And the soup was great: chicken with fresh herbs and rice and a dollop of sour cream stirred in, the whole thing served boiling hot. The salad was actually green and served with a luscious creamy dressing. Pretty good for free eats.
We also got Kashk-o-Bademjan ($3.50), which is not unlike baba ganoujh, only milder and more delicious, I thought. This they served with piping hot naan (bread). Awfully good. For entrées, which consist largely of different kinds of kebabs, we ordered a variety. The eldest of my three companions got Tanoori Chicken ($7.95), which arrived on an enormous bed of rice and featured a side of fresh, diced tomatoes and cucumbers, as well as grilled vegetables. It looked a tiny bit dry, but he devoured it.
One brave young diner ordered the Chelo Khoresht Ghorma Sabzi ($7.85). When I read the ingredients (leeks, parsley, fenugreek, beef and kidney beans), I doubtfully asked the waitress what it was like, and she hastily assured me that people love it. I couldn't help but feel skeptical that a 14-year-old boy would agree, but he claimed to enjoy it when it arrived. To me it tasted exotic and faintly sour: the beef was almost overdone, and the green vegetables (I still don't know what fenugreek is: all we could get out of the waitress was an alarmed, "No, no; it's not Greek!") looked a little wan. This particular dinner companion has risen in my estimation as a consequence of ordering and eating this dish.
I had the Naan-e-Dagh-Kabob-e-Dagh ($7.85), which looked like it was the makings of a really enormous sandwich and proved to be too much food for me. It consisted of lamb, I think, roasted green peppers and tomatoes, the same slaw dressing as the tanoori, and tiny pickles. The meat was tasty and well-cooked, and the pickles enchanted me.
For dessert we chose Zolobia Bamia ($2.85) and Sholeh Zard ($2.85); the first being a type of honeyed funnel cake and the second a species of cold saffron rice pudding. I am bound to say I enjoyed neither, but I am finicky about sweets. The guys ate them, especially the funnel cakes, with apparent enthusiasm.
Besides the appetizers, I saw only one veggie dish on the menu. They serve no liquor there.
The place was utterly deserted, except for one small group of people who looked like they might be family members connected to the place, and the emptiness compounded the desolation of the interior. Mind you, the place is clean and well-lighted, as they say, but somehow sad-looking. But maybe that was me projecting current events. If you're in the mood to eat tasty, nicely prepared, home-style Persian dishes and contemplate the birthplace of written language and math and some of the most beautiful, ecstatic poetry in the world, Café Shiraz is where you should go. ©
Go: 2824 Vine St., Corryville
Hours: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; Dinner: 5-9:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 4-9:30 p.m. Saturday-Sunday
Prices: Inexpensive to reasonable
Red Meat Alternatives: Mainly appetizers