Heres to Empire

Photo by Joy BastSometimes you have to wonder if all the huge machinations of nations—the empire-building and -losing, the wars and foreign-policy missteps—don't take place with the sole unconscious goal of improving a country's cuisine. England had an empire, and today life on the sceptered isle is made bearable by Indian takeout. The U.S. had its little adventures, and as a result, OC has great Vietnamese and Persian restaurants.

Most of the Persian ones, including my favorite, Orchid, are located in the South Coast Plaza environs, making Orange's Saffron Persian a real asset to North County diners. The food is splendid, and if that's not enough for you, they also have belly-dancing on Friday and Saturday nights. On a recent visit to the two-month-old Saffron, we were one of only two parties in the large, handsome place. Along with business being slow everywhere, many Americans with misdirected rage are shunning "foreign" establishments or worse—a major Persian festival in OC was just canceled because of safety fears—while the expatriates who make up part of the clientele are staying home to avoid the nuts on the streets.

In my years of going to Persian restaurants, there are a great many things I still haven't tried because I'm absolutely stuck on the boneless-chicken kebabs and adas polo rice. Saffron's charbroiled kebab chunks are marinated in lemon juice, olive oil, onion, pepper and salt, and they are splendidly juicy and flavorful. The kebabs typically come with a grilled tomato and a simple but excellent basmati rice topped with a strip of saffroned rice. The adas polo rice is an upgrade from that, but it's well worth asking for or ordering separately. It is basmati lightly fried with lentils, currants and succulent whole dates, and done as well as Saffron makes it, there isn't much of anything better you can do with rice.

That doesn't keep Persian restaurants from trying, though. Saffron's seven mixed-rice dishes range from the dusky baghala polo (with green lima beans and an avalanche of dill) to the sunny shirin polo (in which the saffron rice blends with pistachio and almond pieces and sugar-fried orange peels). Any of the rice dishes ($3.95-$4.95) can be augmented with a baked Cornish hen in a savory sauce for an additional $4.95.

The appetizer salad olivieh is a different twist on a potato salad, including shredded chicken breast, pickle and olive oil. It's good on its own, but it really takes off when you bite into the kalamata olive at the center of each mound. The hummus is excellent, made with fresh green olive oil. The borani bademjan is one of several eggplant dishes, this one sautéed with garlic, yogurt and caramelized onion.

As is the case with most new restaurants, Saffron could improve on a few things. They were out of some menu items, and some others could benefit from a more complete description. Their ash-e jo barley soup, for example, had chicken in it, which may be a nice bonus for most people but was an unwelcome surprise for the vegetarians dining with me. The bastani ice cream is an intriguing blend of pistachio and rosewater flavors, but it was a while before we were able to sample it, as it was served so frozen it was harder than a hockey puck.

But these are minor quibbles, considering the care given to most of the dishes. Saffron is a fine addition to OC's banquet of Persian restaurants, and we are all lucky that Persian food is now American food.

Saffron, located at 720 E. Katella Ave., Orange, is open Sun.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-midnight. (714) 538-3940. Beer and wine. Dinner for two, $17-$45, food only. All major credit cards are accepted.


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