Suddenly, on my third visit to Café Natasha's Kabob International, I was nervous. First date nervous. Job interview nervous. I drained my water as soon as it was filled and hid my trembling hands under the table. See, I'd fallen in love with the place. I loved the elegant food, simply presented but often the result of hours of careful preparation. And I loved the space, a cozy nook of warm colors, soft light and a charmingly ad hoc display of Persian art and photographs of Iran along South Grand's bustling corridor of South Asian restaurants. But that night I'd brought a friend who was herself from Iran, and as she explained to us which dishes were authentically Persian and which were generically Middle Eastern, I feared I'd allowed myself to become smitten in haste. What if she didn't like Café Natasha (as it's commonly known)? My career as a restaurant critic would end before it began, in shame: I didn't know what the hell I was talking about.
I don't know why I was so worried, though. I knew that sooner or later my friend would notice the entry for tongue of beef. And sure enough, her eyes brightened and she recalled a delicious beef tongue she'd eaten at a Persian restaurant in Berkeley, California.
A young busboy with a pitcher of water overheard the mention of some other Persian restaurant. He stepped right up to our table and said, "But we've got tongue, too! It's very good."
And it is very good: thin slices of beef so tender, so packed with earthy flavor, that after one bite I wondered why we even bother with bloody, marbled hunks of sirloin. Served swimming in a golden, buttery broth (be sure to ask for pita bread to sop it up) with a curry-mustard sauce on the side, it's just one of many examples of how Persian cuisine is so satisfying and of why Café Natasha has thrived in the two years since husband-and-wife co-owners Behshid and Hamish Bahrami (Behshid cooks; Hamish does desserts and runs the front of the house) moved their restaurant from the Delmar Loop to its current location: A flavorful ingredient is cooked to perfection with fresh herbs and mild spices that complement, rather than overwhelm. In truth, I found the tasty curry-mustard sauce that accompanied the tongue unnecessary, so richly flavored was the meat.
Of course, to enjoy the tongue, you have to resist the temptation to load up on appetizers. A big hit at our table was kashke-bademjune, a mash of roasted eggplant, chickpeas, garlic and spices, thickened with whey. The flavor is deeper than that of hummus, the texture creamier. We were grateful for an extra helping of pita to scoop up the stray dollops.
Both kashke-bademjune and hummus, which has a bright lemon zing that nicely balances the savory tahini sauce, cost only $3.99; nearly all the appetizers, soups and salads are priced below $5. Osh, a lentil soup topped with a swirl of fresh yogurt, is so hearty I kept checking the menu to make sure it didn't have any meat in it. Salads are big and fresh and, loaded with pepperoncini, feta and red onions, have a nice bite to them. If you want a light dinner or if you're a vegetarian you can make a meal out of the feta cheese salad, a bowl of osh and several appetizers.
Actually, I cringed as I wrote that last sentence. I don't want anyone to skip the pleasures of Café Natasha's entrées. Lamb and, to a lesser extent, beef and chicken are pillars of Persian cuisine, and all three are well represented. Most intriguing was fessenjoon, a stew of boneless chicken breast in a pomegranate-walnut sauce. The sauce struck a perfect balance between sweet and savory and was pleasantly astringent. My girlfriend ordered this, but my fork kept straying to her plate. This isn't an uncommon occurrence, as she could tell you, but it was remarkable that night because on my own plate was barreh polo, a tremendous shank of peel-from-the-bone-tender lamb stewed with beans, tomato, garlic and lemon. "That's pure taste," a friend summed up. Lamb also features in ghormeh sabzie, a stew with black-eyed peas and a heady aroma of cloves that kept distracting me until my girlfriend, sighing, offered me another bite.
If I hadn't tried the beef tongue on a later visit, I probably would have begun this review raving about the kabob barg, the kind of dish that drives those of us who love to cook at home utterly crazy. It's three thin, broad pieces of flank steak, the exterior with a peppery, toothsome char, the interior blush-pink and juicy. You can almost taste the tension between the two, those few, agonizing seconds when a piece of meat that thin passes from raw to perfectly grilled to briquette. For a few extra dollars, you can add a serving of koubideh to your kabob barg. A mixture of ground beef and lamb, koubideh falls somewhere between a meatball and sausage in flavor and appearance, and it provides a nice contrast in texture to the kabob.
Vegetarians beware. Your entrée selections are limited, and quite frankly they pale alongside the meat dishes. In fact, my Iranian friend shook her head as she read the menu. Most of the vegetarian options would have been classic Persian preparations, she told us if they'd had meat. We ordered the shami platter, three patties made from eggs, split peas and soy protein. These were dry and flavorless, though the accompanying yogurt sauce was quite good. Kookoo, which we tried as an appetizer, is a soufflé made from eggs, herbs, walnuts and spices. I found the hints of walnut interesting, but all of us agreed that in general it was a bit flat.
Dinner entrées come with a generous helping of rice, served al dente and usually dusted with saffron. (At lunch you can pair your entrée from a slightly shorter list over pita, with a salad or with rice.) The Bahramis take great pride in their rice: Café Natasha's Web site (www.cafenatasha.com) features a lengthy essay on how rice should be prepared. It's delicious, but don't clean your plate. I wished I hadn't once I tasted the homemade Persian ice cream: vanilla ice cream with pistachio, saffron and rosewater. The rosewater is a masterstroke, cutting the ice cream's heaviness, making it more like a sorbet and a lovely palate-cleansing ending to a meal.
Service at Café Natasha is unfailingly friendly. On my first visit our waitress cheerfully coached my mangled pronunciation; on a later visit our waitress was surprised when I ordered the tongue, and the server who delivered the dish was careful to explain its elements. Service did lag on a busy weekend evening, but I hardly noticed, the food was so good. Besides, with Hamish Bahrami working the small room, greeting regulars and newcomers alike, it's hard not to feel part of the family.
During one meal she joined the table next to ours, where a mom and dad were celebrating the birthday of a daughter. After a spirited rendition of "Happy Birthday," Hamish produced a strawberry ice-cream cake and encouraged the birthday girl to share with customers at other tables. I was pretty much stuffed by then, but for a fleeting moment it occurred to me that if she'd come bearing a plate of birthday beef tongue, as stuffed as I was I would have said yes.