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Photo by Matt OttoThe other day, I was host to a most wondrous dream. Bill Clinton had just been elected Emperor for Life. And in honor of this stout scribbler's dedication to the discipline of fine food writing, Bill was awarding me a golden key to his personal harem of European supermodels. For some bizarre reason, my Raymond Burr-like bod was shod only in a skimpy, black Speedo. Egged on by the roar of an enthusiastic crowd, I climbed a tall ladder to a diver's perch. Beribboned key in one hand, I then proceeded to swan dive into an Olympic-sized swimming pool filled with the exquisite, purplish-brown pomegranate-and-walnut sauce known to Persians as fessenjon.
That's when I awoke to find that I was not gulping my way through gallons of sweet-tart syrup, but rather lying on my couch near midday, slobbering all over myself. Truly, reality is a bloody bore, but I decided to pick myself up, wipe myself off, and head over to Santa Ana's Ferdussi Restaurant to treat myself to their chicken fessenjon with zereshk polo, the latter being a fluffy basmati rice mixed with barberries, a sort of sour cherry.
The chicken comes in its own dish, smothered in that maroon ambrosia, alongside a mountain of rice. You dump the chicken and fessenjon, which is reminiscent of a Mexican mole, on the basmati and plunge in face-first. You'll be hard-pressed to discover a dish more satisfying to both stomach and taste buds. That is unless you explore some of the other items on Ferdussi's bill o' fare.
This 11-year-old eatery is the province of veteran restaurateur Seyed Miremadi, who also owns Irvine's Café de France. A suave, handsome fellow who could charm the Old Glory tie off Wally George, Miremadi explained to me that Ferdussi is the name of a famous Persian poet credited with keeping the Persian language and culture alive during the seventh-century Arab occupation. The literal translation of Ferdussi is "things from paradise," an apt description of the restaurant's décor, service and menu.
The interior features soft lighting from brass chandeliers and walls and ceilings painted either a light, creamy yellow or mint green. Chairs and tables are a combination of forest green and dark cherry; the carpet and fabric-lined booths vary in shades of Tuscan red. All about the restaurant hang photos of Persian antiquities such as the jewel-encrusted Peacock Throne, a carved sardonyx cameo showing Shapur I's seizure of the Emperor Valerian, and the tiled minaret at Sepahsalar in Tehran.
The servers are helpful and attentive, entertaining even. Mine, a chap named Majid, likes to crack jokes and perform the occasional magic trick. When for dessert he brought me a bowl of LA-based Mashti Malone's renowned rose water and pistachio ice cream (filled with yummy cream chips), he quipped, touching behind his ears, "Yes, you can eat some, wear some—it's great."
Yet, for this rotund reviewer, the real treasure at Ferdussi's is cuisine to which I am happily addicted. They make their lamb shank just as I like it: stewed for so long the meat falls off the bone when you so much as look at it. This goes very well with their morrasa polo—basmati rice with orange peels, raisins, almond slivers and the aforementioned barberries.
As to appetizers, their kashk budemjon (eggplant and whey dip) is so deliciously gooey, topped with toasted garlic, onion and mint, that I was tempted to lick the plate. Similarly, their crunchy rice (tadeeg) harvested from the bottom of the cooking pan, which was half-spread with ghormeh (spinach and kidney beans) and half with gheimeh, tomato and split peas, was so tasty I did what I almost never do—took some home.
Miremadi tells me he'll be moving Ferdussi to a new location at Bristol and Bear in Costa Mesa sometime in May. The new name will be Ferdussi Grill, in order to appeal more directly to American palates. However, you need not wait to visit Ferdussi at its current address; it's palate-pleasing already.
Ferdussi Taste of Persia Restaurant, 3605 S. Bristol St., Santa Ana, (714) 545-9096. Full bar. Dinner for two, $48, food only. All major credit cards accepted.