Heard of the Asian persuasion, the impulse that drives some guys toward hot Asian women? My buddy is a Farsi fanatic—can't get enough of the Persians. Lives in Irvine, home to tens of thousands of Iranians. Learning Farsi at UC Irvine. Hangs with Persian women. Inhales the culture's food along with its music, film and history.
"Have you been to Caspian? Hatam? How about Ferdussi?" he asked the other day, quizzing me on my Orange County Persian restaurant knowledge. Yes, I answered to all, and, yes, Darya (the Orange and Santa Ana locations), Assal, Ali Baba and others—until he mentioned Darband.
"Aha!" he exclaimed, with the impudence of a pupil slamming his sensei to the mat. "That's where we'll eat."
And so one recent weekday evening we visited Darband, the newest Persian tenant in Irvine's Heritage Square Mall. For months, friends have told me to visit on weekends, when the elegant tables fill with Persian families, the long bar buzzes with gorgeous exiles, and the side stage reverberates beneath the feet of gyrating belly dancers and musicians.
But on this weeknight, we wanted meat.
A waitress guided us to a table next to an indoor pillar. My friend immediately struck up a conversation with her in Farsi, and she smiled. She returned with an order of tah dig, basmati rice scraped from the bottom and sides of pans. This isn't a leftover: the nuttiness of the fried basmati rice kernels is magnified, and it's accompanied by three stews: the bitter ghormeh sabzi (cilantro, leeks, kidney beans and other veggies), hearty gheimeh (tomato and eggplant simmered with beef and big navy beans) and fessenjoon, the thick walnut-and-pomegranate sauce that's a distant cousin of Mexican mole and one of the richest, most complex dishes I've encountered. Taken together, they create even more complex tastes. We alternated the tah dig with a bowl of ash reshteh, a thick, luscious soup of lentils, red beans, spinach, noodles, cream and fried onions.
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Persian restaurants everywhere tend to offer the same kebabs, stews, rice platters and a dozen or so appetizers. But as the tah dig showed, Darband trumps competitors with the intensity and largess of its offerings. For instance, I've tried many versions of shirin polo, basmati rice mixed with shredded chicken and fragments of orange peel, pistachios and almonds. Darband outdoes them all. In place of mere slices of chicken was half a chicken; instead of mixing it into the shirin polo, the Darband cooks brought it out simmering in a bowl of chicken broth. The result was a chicken so succulent and tender that I was able to eat it with a spoon. That kind of lushness characterized the shirin polo—fragrant orange peel, crunchy pistachios and almonds, and a dash of saffron that actually made my nostrils flare and my tongue tingle.
My friend, meanwhile, enjoyed eyeing the waitresses as much as he did his double skewers of beef koobideh, ground beef fried with egg, and soltani, filet mignon slabs that he dunked into our communal bowl of must o' mousier, yogurt mixed with shallots. We washed everything down with cold pomegranate juice. But he didn't join me in chomping on raw white onion smothered with butter per the Persian tradition—"Not into that yet," he said. His loss.
We finished the night comparing Farsi and Spanish—did you know that the Farsi term oshallah ("God willing") and Spanish ójala ("Hopefully") have their roots in the Arabic inshallah, meaning Mexicans and Persians share more than just swarthy good looks?The linguistics lesson continued once the waitress returned. They spoke for a bit; I stayed quiet, admiring Farsi's throaty flow of vowels and consonants. I didn't understand what they discussed, but when she said, "Sorry, I'm not looking for anyone right now. I work seven days a week. Maybe in six months," I got it—it was a no-go. Not that it fazed my friend: he smiled, flipped open his cell phone and dialed another girl from the exotic East.
DARBAND, 14210 CULVER DR., STE. H, IRVINE, (949) 857-8265. OPEN MON.-FRI., 11:30 A.M.-10 P.M.; SAT.-SUN., NOON-11 P.M. DINNER FOR TWO, $20-$50, EXCLUDING DRINKS. FULL BAR.