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Persian Way

Christopher Gardner

Persian Fancies: Mehdi Rahbar follows in his father's footsteps, bringing fine Persian cuisine to Sunnyvale's Chelokababi.

Sunnyvale's Chelokababi carries on the family tradition of good Persian home-style cooking and hospitality

By Andrew X. Pham

FAMILY TRADITION binds. A decade ago, Chelokababi passed from father to son and all is still well after 17 years of good Persian home-style cooking and hospitality. One probable key is the fact that Madame Ashraf Rahbar is still in the kitchen to oversee the cooking while her son and now owner Mehdi Rahbar manages the rest of the restaurant.

Humble little Chelokababi sits in an old strip mall behind a car wash. The restaurant understates itself with cursory Middle Eastern decor: Persian tapestries, prints, bronze platters, lavender-gray ceiling, matching carpet, arched dining alcoves, and a blend of real and plastic potted plants. Despite the absence of designer flair, the dining room possesses that one quality sorely lacking in most restaurants today: elbow room.

Aside from its uninspired wine list, dry pita bread and universally unpopular pats of butter encased in foil, Chelokababi makes an impressive case for Persian cuisine.

With meat dominating the menu, kashko bademjan ($4.95) stands as the obvious choice for a starter. This blend of eggplant ignites the appetite not with spices but with subtleties. Fried eggplant is puréed and simmered with onion, ground walnuts, olive oil, whey and black pepper. Served warm with a dash of mint-infused olive oil and colored white with a fillip of whey, the cream dissolves lusciously on the tongue with the help of some pita bread.

Western-style dining adapts poorly to Persian cuisine, which orients not on a single entree but several. Consequently, the palate blunts quickly on any one dish. So sharing at least two or three entrees makes a meal much more engaging. Add two side dishes and the repast suddenly elevates to a feast.

The vehicle of every course is an outstanding basmati rice cooked the Persian way for that proper chelo quality: light, neither sticky nor starchy. The unique preparation comes straight from Persia. After an overnight soak in salt water, the rice is rinsed, cooked halfway and then thoroughly rinsed again with cold water. Next, it is steamed until fully cooked in an oiled pan with a bit of water to produce a fluffy, flavorful rice distinctly different from Indian-style basmati.

From a selection of chicken, lamb, filet mignon and vegetable kebabs, we chose the ordinary ground beef kebabs, koobideh ($7.50). Two long kebabs of marinated beef, grilled to singed dark perfection, rest center stage on a platter in the company of roasted tomatoes, grilled onion halves and steamed rice. The meat was simple in flavor and succulent in its own juice.

Beyond the menu's well-known and well-liked kebabs, the real gems in the rough spark from the ranks of the daily specials.

The most enigmatic dish is the fesenjun ($7.75). Its visual simplicity beguiles: a huge plate of steamed basmati escorts a terrine of yellow-brown stew. The sauce draws flavors from grounded walnuts, lemon juice, tomato sauce, chicken stock, saffron, black pepper and not often seen pomegranate paste. The keystones are the ground walnuts fried in oil and the haunting pomegranate. Almost pulpy, substantial, with a faint sour undertone and a fruit-sweet finish, the sauce gives body to the tender chicken breast and allures the palate to conjure allegories. If flavors have color, the fesenjun paints a vanishing purple.

The ghaymeh ($7.75), a chickpea beef stew, packs a wallop of sourness with dried and seeded lemons, a Persian specialty. The onion, saffron and turmeric help rein in the wild acidity. A light tomato paste and eggplant slivers add body. Garnished with fried potatoes, the stew makes an appropriate companion for lamb kebabs.

Taken alone, both marvels intimidate, their richness overwhelm. While the kitchen consistently dishes out generous servings, it doesn't endow the little extras that would help round out the courses. For best results, we trimmed the selections with side orders of grilled tomatoes ($1) and cucumber yogurt, masto-khiar ($2.50).

As for dessert, if a yellow rose were dipped in saffron-laced vanilla cream and then frozen, it might taste like bastani ($2). It's a wonder why this is not a household flavor. It's simple enough: vanilla ice cream, rose water, crushed pistachios and just a faint dusting of saffron. Rosy stuff!

Chelokababi is a survivor, a family tradition. With owner Mehdi Rahbar and his competent enthusiasm at the helm, the next decade looks promising for this old place and all its good things.


Address: 1236 Wolfe Road, Sunnyvale
Phone: 408/737-1222
Cuisine: Persian
Ambiance: casual hospitality
Menu: $5­$13; takeout available
Hours: Daily, 11am­10pm

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From the June 27-July 3, 1996 issue of Metro

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