Reyhan successfully navigates the delicate complexity of Persian cuisine
By Richard Foss (Richard(at)RichardFoss.com)
Look at a map of Asia and you see countries famous for their exuberant use of seasonings; the places where Indian curries, spicy Turkish meatballs and cumin-laced stews of Central Asia are savored. This is the ancient spice road, and in the middle of it is a culture where all those seasonings are used with extraordinary delicacy.
I find the subtlety of Persian cuisine mysterious. People on all sides use peppers and garlic as though they can all only be bought by the truckload, but Persians delight in richly flavored but mild dishes. It’s one of the many ways that this culture is different from the Arabic, Indian and Asiatic peoples around them, and probably the easiest for an outsider to appreciate.
You can experience such cuisine at Reyhan, a restaurant on the corner of Jefferson Boulevard and Mesmer Avenue, near the 405 freeway. Many people haven’t seen this place because their sign is pale and dim compared to their neighbors; I hadn’t known about it until an Argonaut reader recommended that I visit.
There aren’t many symbols of culture here — no traditional paintings or other art, and the music was set to a bland Pandora pop station rather than the tinkling notes of the santoor or other traditional instruments. Some construction work was going on in one corner, and perhaps that will add some color to the place when finished. A formally dressed but friendly host handed us menus that read like a greatest hits list of Persian cuisine: an array of appetizers to precede kebabs or stews served with rice and salad on the side.
We decided to start with a bowl of the vegetable and bean soup called aush and an appetizer combo that included yogurt and cucumber dip, hummos and the mashed smoked eggplant called kashk-ke-bademjan. The appetizer combo would have been enough as a starter for the two of us, but I wanted to try the soup because it is one of the measures of any Persian kitchen. The rich vegetarian broth was packed with lentils, red beans, green onions and spinach, along with a complex blend of spices. It was a wonderful warming dish for a cold night, and I could’ve easily made a meal of it.
The appetizer combo was a hit too — the hummos slightly salty and lemony with a creamy texture, eggplant slightly oily but with a fantastic mix of smoke and spice flavors, and the yogurt/cucumber mix cooling with a gentle garlic tang. Persian food has the reputation for being meat heavy because most diners order kebabs, but a vegetarian can dine very well from this menu. Our starters were served with thin traditional flatbread, which we also used to mop up every particle of leftover broth.
Kebabs are at the heart of most Persian meals, and we did order one made from a fish that would be far from home in Tehran — salmon. Our host said that it is traditionally made with white fish, but he think salmon is better. I couldn’t compare them side-by-side, but the big skewer with three chunks of fish certainly was delicious. The seasoning was mild even by the standards of this cuisine — a faint enhancement of the natural flavor — and the ingredients of the marinade are apparently a secret because our host wouldn’t tell me what it was. For a $2 upgrade we had the rice cooked with barberries, which taste something like a cross between a cranberry and a tart cherry. The upgrade is very much worth it, as the fruity flavor adds more to the meal than plain basmati. The salad was a typical green salad with a refreshing vinegary dressing, but on future visits I’ll have this on the side because there was a bit too much of it.
For a main course I chose ghormeh sabzi, beef stew slow cooked with red beans and herbs in a sweet-and-sour sauce. I could taste cardamom and sumac, the tart spice that is in a shaker on every Persian table, among the principal ingredients, but I would be hard pressed to say what else was in there. It was as complex as any curry but without the peppers, ginger and other spices that dominate Indian stews.
To drink there was water, tea or juice. They don’t serve alcohol here but allow you to bring in your own wine with no corkage fee. I will do that next time, because it will be an interesting challenge to pair these dishes.
Baklava was the only dessert offered, but as the meals were very filling we had no room for it. Dinner for two ran just under $60, a price we considered quite fair. Those who already appreciate this most subtle cuisine of South Asia will find their favorites very well executed, and if you are not familiar with this style of dining at all, Reyhan is a great place to learn.
Reyhan is open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 4 to 10 p.m. on weekends. Valet or street parking available. No alcohol, but corkage is free. Menu online.
Reyhan, 11800 W. Jefferson Blvd., Culver City (310) 390-6800 reyhangrill.com