June 28-July 4, 2006

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First Bite

Hatam Persian Grocery & Restaurant

By Therese Nicol

I like flavor, so it was with a heavy heart that I made my way up B Street in San Rafael to take a second bite from the restaurant that was meant to be my first "First Bite." An experience on a previous night had literally been grotesque. Could lunch on a sunny patio redeem? Procrastinating, I poked my nose into an interesting-looking store that turned out to be a Persian grocery. There, tucked into the back corner, sat a restaurant, Hatam. I tottered back and forth. Should I? My assignment was to write about the other place. The bad place. But devil be damned! This looked too good to pass up.

Inside, I found the flavors that I crave--exotic, interesting flavors. Persian music set the stage as a complimentary basket of lavosh, a nice white hunk of feta cheese, butter and a big green pile of fresh mint appeared. I asked my waiter, who also turned out to be the chef and owner, what to do. "Roll it up?" I asked. "Precisely!" Thus began my tour of Persian cuisine.

Next stop, aush ($4), a wonderful barley and lentil soup that was so lushly seasoned it was impossible to pick out any one overriding element. It was fresh and clean tasting, and the garnishes of yogurt, saffron oil and little piles of paprika were not only delicious, but artful. I then got two little tastes from the chef, amuse-bouche in the form of kashk bademjoon, a creamy eggplant appetizer studded with crispy fried onion, and gheymeh bademjoon, an incredible concoction of lamb, dried lime, yellow lentils, eggplant, and baby grapes. Wow. That will be my dinner the next time I visit.

On this day, however, I chose the classic Persian dish, fesenjoon ($9.90), lamb simmered in pomegranate paste and ground walnuts. On the sweetish side, it is meant to be served upon the salty saffron rice that accompanies it. Together, they made quite a pair. I finished the meal with Persian pistachio ice cream ($4) and rosewater-scented cardamom tea ($1.95).

Throughout my meal, I was struck by the complexity and exactitude of the recipes. Some cuisine uses spice blends that make for a redundancy in taste. But at Hatam, the diversity was evident at every twist and turn of the journey: mint, cardamom, saffron, pomegranate, roses. It was an enchanting afternoon in Persia.

Hatam Persian Grocery and Restaurant, 821 B St., San Rafael. Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday. 415.454.8888.

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Quick-and-dirty dashes through North Bay restaurants. These aren't your standard "bring five friends and order everything on the menu" dining reviews.