Shake Your Sumac


Glowing like a saffron sun, chelo rice commands the center of the table. Served on a plate the size of a small yacht, each glistening grain tastesindividually buttered. At Patoug—a new branch of an Oakland Gardens, Queens, Persian favorite—the rice arsenal also includes plain basmati mingled with currants and tart barberries, and a dilled rice flecked with tender baby limas smaller than a fingernail. The restaurant occupies a semisubterranean room in the rug district, and from its windows the passing foot traffic looks like a parade of legless torsos, many carrying rolled rugs in muted browns and cerises. The interior is austere, adorned with only a samovar, a crossed set of peacock-feather fans, and a series of small mystical prints that compare favorably with William Blake’s. The patrons are a quiet, well-dressed bunch who transact their business in Farsi and prefer a very late lunch.

Once you’ve navigated the rice menu (don’t neglect the varieties in the “polo” section), you’re faced with the question, what to go with it? The two obvious paths are stew or skewer. Since the fragrant odor of the charcoal-grilled kebabs struck you the moment you stepped in the door, you’ll be tempted to go that route. They come two to a plate with your choice of rice, a charred plum tomato, and sweet, parsley-strewn onions. The best is kobideh ($9), righteously marrying ground beef and lamb and powerfully redolent of onion. This might seem a pauper’s choice, meat loaf instead of roast beef, but in these days of fatless beef and bleatless lamb, these moist, wavy cylinders kick ass. A close runner-up is jujeh ($10), boneless pieces of yogurt-and-saffron-smeared Cornish hen that demand only a squeeze of lemon to attain poultry perfection. (Warning: Don’t let them substitute chicken breast!) Whatever you order, get a side of masto moosir ($3), homemade yogurt dotted with chopped shallots, providing further dimensions of tartness and moistness. And don’t forget to shake on the sumac.

The single best dish we had, though, was ash reshteh (cup $3.50, bowl $4.50), a humble vegetarian soup crammed with wholesome ingredients: green lentils, kidney beans, chickpeas, noodles, scallions, fenugreek leaves, and mint. As if it weren’t tasty enough, crunchy fried onions are heaped on top. Other fab starters include mirza ghasemi, shredded eggplant dressed with tomato sauce and garlic; fragments of fetalike panir in a nest of fresh scallions, tarragon, basil, and parsley; and sambuseh, three fried pies stuffed with a smudge of chickpeas, cilantro, and ground beef. You can get generous helpings of all three in the combo platter ($8).

In Persian restaurants I usually advise by-passing the kebabs, available almost anywhere, for the uniquely Iranian stews called khoresh. Patoug is something of an exception. Though ghourmeh sabzi ($9) conceals chunks of beef and kidney beans in a lemony slurry of parsley, scallion, and fenugreek cooked to Okefenokee consistency, this rendition is too much like a crude-oil spill. A better choice is Iran’s national dish, fesenjan: boneless chicken mired in a bewildering brown puree of nuts and pome-granate. Order it only if you go with pals who order kebabs and are willing to share. Not only is it one of the city’s strangest dishes, it’s also one of the richest.