By Cheryl Baehr
By Mabel Suen
By Cheryl Baehr
By Mabel Suen
By Cheryl Baehr
By Nancy Sitles
By Nancy Stiles
By Patrick Hurley
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."
3200 S. Grand Blvd.
St. Louis, MO 63118
Region: St. Louis - South Grand
Tongue of beef $8.99
Fessenjoon stew $11.99
Lamb shank $17.99
Persian ice cream $3.99
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.