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Magic Carpet Ride

Christopher Gardner

Get Off the Stick: Though skewered meats are the house specialty, owner Rahim Abtahi and his staff serve up more than just shish kabobs at Shamshiri.

Another gold mine in a strip mall, Shamshiri offers Persian classics

By Christina Waters

UNDERSCORING THE law of South Bay dining--that the greatest variety of ethnic restaurants shall be housed within generic strip malls--Shamshiri has served its Fertile Crescent attractions for a decade in a modest shopping center on Bascome Avenue, where its grilled meats, legume stews and sensuous yogurt accompaniments offer a window into ancient traditions of the Middle East.

First let me say that had I been twice the woman I am, I couldn't have come close to doing justice to the meal I ordered last week at Shamshiri. It was not only that abundant, it was that good. (Actually, a few more meals like that at Shamshiri, and I will be twice the woman I am today.)

From the curiously appropriate glasses of Australian shiraz ($5 each) to the opulently perfumed baklava that finished us off, the meal was memorable.

Shamshiri likes to bill itself as a kabob house. Probably because that's what restaurateurs think Californians want Persian cooking to be: user-friendly meats laced on skewers. Yet to suggest it is merely that is like calling Chez Panisse a house of healthful cuisine. It's true, but it doesn't tell the important parts of the story.

So while most non-native diners will opt for comfortable entrées from the kabob side of the menu, I strongly suggest wandering over to the wilder side of the menu, where items like braised poultry in walnut and pomegranate sauce, or fava beans, dill weed and lamb shank stew lie in wait, like stolen afternoons at an oasis.

A basket of lavosh arrived the minute we sat down at a corner table covered with mint-green linens. A plate of butter and another containing half of a raw onion were also set down by a smiling waitress who felt unmoved to use much more English on us than "Sure." Undaunted, my companion, Dianne, simply cut a slice and tucked it into her lavosh. "Definitely makes it unboring," she smiled, encouraging me to do likewise.

Small plates of appetizers arrived next. One was the heady blend of yogurt and cucumber that has so many variations throughout the eastern Mediterranean. This one ($2.50) was dusted liberally with dried mint--perfect for dipping with lavosh. An order of sabzi ($2.75)--fresh herbs and feta cheese--proved a surprising bouquet of fresh basil, mint and cilantro sided by squares of feta. We tore apart the leaves and made mini-wraps of aromatic greens, cheese, yogurt and lavosh.

Fat dolmas also arrived, laden with spice--perhaps some cloves and cardomom, a bit of turmeric--plus yellow lentils and rice ($4.95). They were huge with flavor.

Soon our main dishes came, mine a deep bowl of qeymeh badamjan ($7.50)--an eggplant and yellow lentil stew--and Dianne's a kabob combo of chicken and salmon ($11.95). Morsels of lemon-marinated chicken breast lined up like a king's ransom along one side of the platter, interspersed with even larger squares of salmon. The center was piled high with Persian rice stained brilliant turmeric yellow. The chicken was spectacularly moist.

Meanwhile, over on my side of things, rice provided the foundation for a richly flavored stew based on tomatoes, sumac (a lemony dried spice with pepper and clove undertones), yellow lentils, roasted eggplant and chunks of beef. The flavor of this stew was undeniably exotic, and almost addictive. I kept popping bits of the fresh herbs in between bites.

The patient owner himself finally came to our table to let us know that we really must finish the meal with glasses of strong tea. He was quite right: The tea was a beautiful finish, along with a shared order of baklava ($1.50), dusted with pistachios and perfumed with cardomom. Ancient wisdom is best.


Address: 1392 S. Bascom Ave., San Jose
Phone: 408/998-0122
Hours: Open seven days.
Cuisine: Authentic Iranian
Price: Entrées $7.50­$11.95
Owner: Rahim Abtahi
Ambiance: Casual elegance

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From the May 8-14, 1997 issue of Metro

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