Considering the dearth of Persian restaurants in the Bay Area, it's something of a disappointment that I Squared, a year-old Iranian-Italian fusion restaurant in Rockridge, doesn't embrace its Middle Eastern side more strongly. Yes, the setting is attractive in a sleek and cool sort of way, the vibe is welcoming, and the food is uniformly delectable. But the glories of Persian cookery — the baked and layered rice dishes; the fragrant stews of mutton, chickpeas, sumac, and quince; the yogurt soups and onion salads and rose-water sherbets — would make a striking addendum to the venue's simple menu of kabobs, pita, and pasta. Whither baghali polo (dill-scented rice with fava beans and lamb shank) and fesenjoon (walnuts, pomegranate, and spiced meatballs), two classic dishes that have disappeared from I Squared's menu?
Yet, ultimately, these are minor quibbles. Owners Sadri Madjlessi and Tanya Anderson (proprietors of the Hudson Bay Cafe right next door) have created a friendly neighborhood destination where locals and savvy out-of-towners can enjoy an exceptional meal for a reasonable price and give their taste buds a pleasant jolt or two along the way. Chef Nory Madjlessi, a veteran of LoCoco's Italian restaurant and his mother's Persian kitchen, handles both aspects of the menu with aplomb, striking a balance between delicacy and gusto in saucing pasta and basmati alike.
The dining room is spare and sleek in the Japanese manner, with butcher-block tables, a stainless-steel counter, and a simple dark-wood/lime-green color scheme. Seating is available at the eight-stool bar and at several cozy tables, and big windows look out on a rather festive stretch of College Avenue. The hard, shiny surfaces are softened by indirect wall lighting, enormous paper-lantern shades, affable service, and the venue's hip, casual ambience.
Begin your meal with the sautéed mushrooms, delicately flavored buttons and stems in a rich, peppery sauce of cream, garlic, white wine, and Parmesan cheese absolutely ideal for dunking and sopping with a hunk of the house sourdough. Or opt for the I Squared Salad, a beautifully balanced mishmash of textures and flavors featuring lush avocado, roasted sweet corn, mixed greens, a light vinaigrette, and a healthy dollop of warm, puckery goat cheese. Best of all was the soup of the day, a three-bean bowl with the heft and spirit of a fine Texas chili and the intricate flavors of a Persian khoresh. Rich and meaty with potato, pintos, red beans, garbanzos, and chunks of beefsteak, it made for one stimulating meal-opener.
Our favorite entrée came from the Italian side of the menu. The linguine salsa rosa combined tender, buttery noodles with a hint of pesto, a trace of garlic, plenty of cream, and grated Parmesan; a house-made marinara sauce rich with tomatoes that had no business being so ripe and sweet five days after the Winter Solstice; and half a dozen tender, juicy jumbo prawns that tasted like they'd been pulled out of the bay five minutes earlier. Four varieties of chelow kabob, the national dish of Iran, are offered on the menu's Persian side: prawn, filet mignon, ground beef, and chicken. The ground beef version (koobideh kabob) featured patties of lightly spiced, almost creamy hamburger meat, skewered and broiled; despite all expectations and previous experiences, the chicken kabobs were wonderfully tender and succulent, with a hint of lemon and saffron to boot. Both kabobs were served with the traditional accompaniments: a perfectly charred beefsteak tomato and that fluffy, delicate Persian rice. (The secret: soak it, drain it, steam it.) The specialty of the house, though, is the cabbage wrap, the kitchen's sole foray into Iranian-Italian fusion. Tender cabbage leaves are stuffed with rice, cumin, cinnamon, and ground lamb as well as Mediterranean tarragon and the kitchen's luscious marinara sauce. The result is spicy, sweet, citrusy, creamy, hearty, and comforting all at once.
There are only a few options for vegetarian diners on the menu. Among the meatless starters are the I Squared Salad and the sautéed mushrooms as well as a spinach salad with cranberries, walnuts, and feta and noon-o-panir-o-sabzi, a platter of pita bread, yogurt, basil, and tomatoes. The only meat-free entrée is an eggplant parmigiana with fresh mozzarella.
The twenty-item wine list is evenly split between California and Italian vintages of varying distinction, most of them in the $30 to $50 range. Fifteen are available by the glass. There also are ten bottled beers, including several lusty Trappist ales and five selections from the estimable Yorkshire brewery Samuel Smith (try the organic cider with your cabbage wraps).
The dessert menu features three items: scoops of vanilla and raspberry ice cream (both perfectly worthwhile) and tiramisu, which was one of the best dishes of the evening. Served parfait style in a tall glass, it was all soft creamy texture, the lady fingers absorbing and then becoming the encompassing mascarpone and egg yolk, the rum warming the taste buds, and the cocoa and espresso adding their own vivid accents. It was a lip-smacking ending to an entirely satisfactory meal — but would a little mirza qasemi be too much to ask?