For Iranians, rice is a wild party. Iranian restaurants typically offer multiple forms of rice pilaf, called polo, in lively colors ranging from hot orange to forest green. And whether you top the rice with charcoal-grilled kebabs, or one of the weird and wonderful stews called khoresht, rice remains the focus of the meal. Thus the selection of only three rices proved mildly disappointing at Colbeh, a glatt kosher restaurant on 39th Street, where the pedestrian stream is one of the most diverse in the city. As I stood in front on an alarmingly warm winter evening, a Russian motorcycle gang in denim decorated with iron crosses came guffawing by. I figured they were going into Colbeh and wondered at the impact they’d have on the staid, mainly religious diners the place attracts. Somewhat disappointingly, they turned into the Irish bar next door.
Colbeh’s baghali polo is dark green with dill; baby lima beans flit among the rice grains, lending a certain creaminess without being obtrusive. “That should be a much brighter shade of green,” groused my Persian-American friend, as she poked critically among the grains, noting that the polo had been made with dried rather than fresh dill, as her mother would have done. Shereen polo finds the same basmati mixed with shredded carrots, slivered almonds, and candied orange peel, making it tooth-achingly sweet. Still, it goes surprisingly well with the khoresht known as ghormeh sabzi ($14.75)—beef braised with kidney beans, fenugreek, leeks, parsley, and dried limes. Finally, there’s plain rice, called simply chelo. Fragrant and tender, it’s ennobled with a buttery streak on top like the yellow stripe down the middle of a highway. Except, of course, no actual butter is used. This is a kosher joint, after all.
Persians are said to have invented the kebab millennia ago as meaty accompaniment to a glass of wine. No surprise, then, that the heart of Colbeh’s menu is a long list of flame-grilled kebabs, two to an order, sided with a useless grilled tomato and your choice of rice. Champion is the bone-in joujeh kebab ($22.50), gobbets of Cornish game hen marinated in lemon and saffron. Runner-up is kebab barg ($23.50), largish cubes of filet mignon singed on the outside, tender and pink in the middle. The only disappointing choice is the ground-beef koobideh kebab, which, rather than being greasy and laced with onions as at other places, is here as dry and lifeless as an overcooked hamburger. Lamb is strangely absent from the menu at Colbeh, which means “village hut” in Farsi.
Bringing us to the appetizing dishes, which borrow from North African and Israeli cooking, in addition to the purely Persian. In the latter category find tahdig ($5.75), crispy rice scraped from the bottom of the pan and deposited on a saucer with a khoresht of the restaurant’s choice poured on top. Sometimes it’s gheimeh, a stew of yellow split peas and beef. Hey, this could be your entire lunch. There’s also a baba ganoush of no particular distinction, a delicious tomatoey mess of cooked veggies called matbucha, and Moroccan cigars —fried pastry flutes sometimes called “fingers of Fatima.” Since Fatima is the Muslim equivalent of the Virgin Mary, and Colbeh is a Jewish restaurant, that means you have three religions enfolded in a single cylinder. It’s so Da Vinci Code.