Kashk-e-bademjan!

Darya is really something

Photo by Joy BastThat, uhhh, probably goes real good on, uhhh, something," cracks my old high school buddy Rod, proving he's still a master of the prickly art of giving blunt voice to what everybody else is thinking—at the exact instant everybody else has decided not to say it. The tuxedoed waiter, who has just delivered a selection of mysterious dips and sauces to our table, doesn't flinch. The rest of us do, though, while he efficiently presents an accompanying platter of mostly unrecognizable appetizers. We're feeling less sophisticated and more apprehensive by the moment. But this post-wisenheimer tension feels rather familiar, too, like something that might have arisen during freshman year with Rod in the beleaguered Mr. Fiebing's class—if Fiebing had dressed in crisp tuxedos like the waiters at Darya. And then, just when it seems the awkwardness is about to end, it suddenly becomes terrifyingly evident that, unlike the mild-mannered Mr. Fiebing, the waiter isn't going to let Rod's little comment pass.

"Something?" he asks, his tone seeming to imply the four of us are doomed to some dire consequence for our cross-cultural faux pas—or maybe it's just his worldly, mannered accent and that sharp-cut tux. Then a wry smile creeps across his face, but that only makes it worse. I take an instant to reflect how truly special it has been to hook up with old Rod again.

Finally, the waiter speaks, graciously: "Maybe you are having some trouble with the menu?" And, well, maybe we are. We shrug and start to reply. "Maybe you would like some help selecting your meal this evening?" the waiter interjects. "Many people, their first time here, their first time eating our food, are not certain what they would like. Would you like me to select for you?"

Darya serves Persian cuisine, and the aromas wafting through the restaurant are as opulent as the marble pillars, sparkling chandeliers, vases, paintings, lush plants and plush chairs that decorate its 15,000 square feet. But its delicacies are described in unfamiliar combinations of letters strung together with hyphens. We haven't got a clue.

"Then leave it to me," says the waiter, sweeping our menus from our hands with a friendly, competent flourish, and I am beginning to like this guy and wonder where he went to high school. "You will love it."

And so it was that we actually came to know what was on that appetizer platter. There were dolmas, grape leaves densely stuffed with a mixture of ground beef, rice, yellow split peas, green onions and tarragon. There was kashk-e-bademjan, eggplant sautéed and topped with kashk (a thickened yogurt) and mint, dried sumac leaves, and brown, minced lamb. There were the two takes on mast, an airy, light yogurt that becomes the tart mast o'mosier when mixed with chopped shallots and the dreamy mast o'khiar when combined with chopped cucumber and mint.

The main course was also a sampler, full of exotic spins on familiar entrées. One oblong platter featured three high piles of various polos, white rice deftly mixed with ingredients ranging from fluffy saffron to sour cherries to raisins and dates. Another huge plate featured four selections of juicy, expertly spiced meats—kebabs of naderi (tenderloin) and choopani (lamb), along with chicken and shrimp.

We didn't want dessert, but the waiter insisted, and that was pretty much that. He brought two delectables. The first was rulet, a yellow cake sweeter than the dollop of whipped cream atop it. The second was an Iranian ice cream, generally vanilla in flavor, but topped with shavings of rice starch and a sour-cherry syrup that delivered a pleasurable eye-clearing sting. Both came with four forks and spoons and cups of rich coffee. Dinner for four had come to $116.85, tax included, and left us stuffed and grateful—and, even for Rod, beyond comment.

Darya, located at 1611 Sunflower Ave., Santa Ana, is open Mon.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.- 10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun., noon-10 p.m. (714) 557-6600. Dinner for two, $50, food only. Full bar. AmEx, MC and Visa accepted.
 
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