Because Persia is now commonly known as Iran and the general American view of Iran has been skewed by the contentious relations of the past couple of decades, Persian cuisine isn't terribly well known or visible around these parts. That's too bad, because the combination of bold and subtle flavorings, coupled with a tradition of warm hospitality, is a worthwhile addition to any diner's list of restaurant adventures.
Luckily for us, Café Natasha has thrived among the rich tapestry of ethnic restaurants in the U. City Loop for some seven years now. (The only other Persian restaurant I've been aware of, Alea's Place in West County, recently morphed into an Indian restaurant called Maharaja after less than a year serving an unusual menu that combined Persian and Italian.)
A steady stream of everything from khaki-clads to protopunks passes between the plate-glass windows and Café Natasha's sidewalk tables during the course of the evening meal; inside, the borders of several of the Persian prints hung on the wall are echoed by a custom chair rail that lines the room, and over in the corner a small display of artifacts, including a happy hookah or two, welcomes guests when they first walk through the front door. Twangy, sometimes pulsating Middle Eastern music plays tangibly, but not intrusively, in the background, and on both of our visits the sounds of the restaurant also included the melodic tones of patrons speaking in what I assumed was the Farsi language, although I'm not smart enough to recognize that one by ear.
What is Persian cooking? Well, to start with, we found out that Persian means pickling, as illustrated by the pungent appetizer called torshi, an itty-bitty glass bowl of slices of carrots and green vegetables. Don't let the size fool you, though -- the hyperpickling makes the flavors explode in your mouth, and any more than a tiny portion would probably overwhelm your taste buds for the rest of the meal.
Further into one of the meals, we discovered that Persian also means pomegranate, as in what's transliterated here as fessenjun, although spelled with about a dozen variations elsewhere. Somewhere between reddish-tan and violet in color, it almost looks like a beef dish on arrival, five big chunks alongside an elongated bed of basmati rice flavored with lentils, raisins and saffron. The pomegranate sauce also incorporates walnuts, giving it equal hints of tartness, sweetness and nuttiness.
Other alliterative ingredients included parsley and pepper, the former used repeatedly as a garnish in both brushy-leaved and cilantro forms, the latter both as a fire-bringer (Natasha's colossal hot green olives are another potent appetizer) and a container (bell pepper stuffed with rice, split peas and tomato).
Some of the à la carte starting dishes also can come with the meal, so be sure to sort all that out before you make your final selections. For example, "The Persian," a couple of disks of snow-white, creamy feta cheese from Bulgaria over an herbal salad of cilantro, parsley, radishes and scallions, can be the first course that's included with your entrée, or you can opt for the osh, a mildly spiced lentil and whole-grain soup.
This gave us the opportunity to sample even more appetizers, including kashke bademjune, also known simply as "the eggplant," an aromatic spread garnished with whole chickpeas and flavored primarily with garlic and onion; and kookoo, a cross between a soufflé and a cake with a brown crusty edge, fluffy interior and garnish of radish, red onion, parsley and cilantro, sauced on the side with a slightly sour yogurt cream.
Among the other entrées we tried were the kabob barg, a succulent set of slices of beef flank steak (as with the other entrées, this was served with a huge portion of basmati rice and a roasted tomato that we were instructed to chop and mix in with the rice); and barreh kabob, four slender lamb chops, three of which were cooked to the perfect medium-rare specification, but the last one of which was found to be just this side of raw, with flame marks at the outermost skin but almost totally uncooked inside.
Desserts are homemade by owner Hamish Bahrami and include both traditional Persian desserts like faludeh, a puckeringly lemony sweetened ice of rosewater mixed, slightly incongruously, with rice noodles; and all-American favorites like a densely fruited strawberry-rhubarb pie.
A short list of wines under $20 and several beers are available, but if you're in the mood for something unusual, try the dough, a milky yogurt-based beverage with a lightly sour flavor punctuated by bits of floating herbs.
Service is performed jointly by the Bahrami family and by an all-black-clad waitstaff, which, despite its apparently local origins, is extremely well versed in the intricacies of the often-unfamiliar dishes. As the 15 or so interior tables fill up, there's often a randomness to who waits on which table, and there isn't really a good place to wait comfortably if the house is packed. Still, even on an evening when we filled the final available table, service was swift and accurate.
Those seeking to expand their culinary horizons will do well at Café Natasha. And even if your dining companions aren't exactly members of the pickles-and-pomegranate crowd, there are plenty of relatively straightforward beef, lamb, chicken and fish dishes to satisfy risk-averse palates.