Ever since I watched Samin Nosrat's Salt Fat Acid Heat, I've been on the lookout for tahdig, the crispy, golden brown layer that, with careful toasting in plenty of melted butter, forms at the bottom of a pot of parboiled rice.
That crunchy layer is beloved in a lot of cultures, whether it's the nurungji at the bottom of a Korean stone pot of rice or the prized soccarat hiding in a pan of Spanish paella. But crispy rice can also be one of the hardest things to perfect. In Salt Fat Acid Heat, Nosrat and her mother gently poke holes in the rice to keep the tahdig from getting soggy, then add melted butter, imbue the rice with saffron, and put their hands together in a praying motion before flipping the entire pot upside down. In the end, the tahdig crumbles at the edge, and Nosrat and her mother eat the broken bits of crunchy rice with their fingers.
Needless to say, I was a little intimidated about the prospect of making my own tahdig. So when Daryoush Persian Cuisine opened a couple months ago in Berkeley, I was excited to see that Daryoush does offer tahdig, along with a menu of Persian dishes rarely seen elsewhere. Aside from Middle East Market on San Pablo Avenue, which offers a casual place for Persian cuisine amid its grocery shelves, Daryoush is the only place in town for a table-service Persian meal. Daryoush isn't cheap, which makes sense, given the fact that many of the dishes contain saffron. But unless you've got Persian relatives or friends, it's a rare opportunity to enjoy Persian cuisine, because as Anthony Bourdain said in Parts Unknown, "the great food of Iran is cooked in people's homes."
It should come as no surprise that the very first thing I ordered at Daryoush was the tahdig. It's offered as an appetizer, topped with your choice of stew. The tahdig shattered delicately with every bite, and the buttery rice was browned for the just-right amount of nutty flavor. I chose the gheymeh bodemjan, a stew of beef and split peas in tomato sauce. The beef was tender and the split peas cooked to a perfect al dente. A whole dried lime added a hint of sour saltiness.
But don't let the tahdig be the only appetizer you order. I also loved the mirza ghasemi, a dip made with tomatoes, garlic, and grilled eggplant for a flavor that was smoky and sweet, with a velvety mouthfeel. Wisps of scrambled egg on top added cravable richness, tempered by the soft, plain lavash. The must-o-mosier, a dip of homemade yogurt with dried shallots, is also a good idea. Not only is it an excellent cool, creamy, buttery dip with lavash, it's also an ideal complement for the rice and kabobs to follow.
A note on these kabobs and rice: These aren't your ordinary grilled meats with rice. Even the plain rice that comes with the kabobs by default is made using quality, extra-long grain basmati rice that goes through 2½ days of soaking and drying for maximum plumpness before it arrives on your plate. The barg kabob, made with filet mignon marinated in saffron, was a tender, lean, and juicy display of lavishness that clocked in at $25.
But I actually preferred both the beef and chicken versions of the koobideh, or ground meat kabobs. While ground meat is often dry, both versions were exceptionally juicy. Onions mixed into the kabobs provided sweetness, which was especially apparent in the chicken version.
If you want to try both the luxurious bargh and the more humble koobideh, go for the soltani kabob, which gets you one skewer of each. A grilled tomato on the side, its skin charred and blistered with a sweet, juicy interior, was not just a pretty garnish but an ideal foil to the rich meat. And though it's off-menu, ask for half rice and half salad if you like a little greenery with your meal. You'll still get plenty of the fluffy, flavorful rice, along with a fresh, lightly dressed salad complete with juicy, meaty tomatoes and crisp cucumbers. Or upgrade your rice to one of the specialty choices. I particularly enjoyed the shirin polo, a sweet-savory rice made with orange marmalade, almonds, pistachios, carrots, and saffron. Wash it all down with a glass of doogh, a tangy, savory, creamy drink made with homemade yogurt and dried mint.
Lovers of lamb will be pleased to know that Daryoush offers three different lamb stews. The first, ghormeh sabzi, is often considered the unofficial national dish of Iran; one Farsi-speaker at an adjacent table declared it his favorite dish. It was my first time trying ghormeh sabzi, but I enjoyed the bitterness of the spinach and green herbs like parsley combined with the tart undertones of dried lime, which cuts a bit of the gaminess of the lamb while bringing out its natural fragrant sweetness. Kidney beans, meanwhile, added a little bite to the dish.
Even more fragrant was the khoresht bodemjan, a lamb stew with roasted eggplant in a tomato-saffron broth. The lamb shank infused the eggplant and tomato alike with its fatty, almost floral flavor.
Although these stews were described as being made with "lamb shank," both came with deboned chunks of lamb, and I missed having an entire bone-in shank. That's where the baghali polo delivered. A whole lamb shank on the bone was served in its own broth, along with carrots that picked up all the savory flavors of the lamb. A plate of long-grained basmati rice with plenty of dill and dried green fava beans was a pleasantly earthy, herbal accompaniment.
For those who aren't fans of lamb, I also enjoyed the khoresht fesenjoon, a thick, darkly colored stew made with sweet and tart pomegranates and ground walnuts with your choice of beef meatballs or chicken. The simultaneously sweet, nutty, and meaty notes reminded me of an exceptionally fruity version of mole, and the meatballs were springy and flavorful.
For dessert, I was excited to see saffron-pistachio flavored Persian ice cream, a treat I've enjoyed in Los Angeles at Persian ice cream parlors like Mashti Malone's or Saffron and Rose. The version at Daryoush was homemade and every bit as custardy, richly textured, and fragrant with rosewater. Add faloodeh, or rice noodles in rosewater syrup, and a squeeze of lemon for a treat that's lighter and more refreshing. Or try the sholezard, a cold rice pudding with almonds that was so chock-full of saffron that it was nearly orange. Either way, you'll want to top off the meal with hot tea, made with Persian black tea from Los Angeles and — you guessed it — saffron, imported from the market in Tehran.