9741 Westheimer @ Gessner
Kasra was the first Persian restaurant I ever tried a year and a half ago or so and I left somewhat disappointed. Uncharacteristically I had gone without doing any prior research to refresh what I had read in reviews and I was overwhelmed by the menu. Maybe I just made some bad choices that day, or maybe not.
I had tried the torshi, an appetizer described as various pickled vegetables. I love pickles so I thought I couldn’t go wrong but it turned out to be a relish consisting, I think, of minced carrot, broccoli, slivered garlic, onion, herbs ad spices and oil, with a characteristic Persian twist - lots of lemon. I couldn’t finish the small portion. (I have since been advised there are thousands of variations of this home-cooking staple, but I haven’t tried it anywhere else). The taftoon, the Persian version of a flatbread, I thought was rather boring, thin, like a saltine without the salt. I had also tried the doogh, the Persian yogurt drink. Once again, I like yogurt drinks but this variation has the addition of carbonated water and I thought the carbonation overpowered the yogurt making this a yogurt drink for people who don’t like yogurt.
My entree had been more successful, the Beef Kubideh, minced beef, onions, garlic, etc., but rather bland until, half way thru the meal, I discovered the ‘Persian spice’ on the table which really helped. The waiter, who really tried hard, couldn’t come up with a translation for the spice so just called in ‘Persian Spice.’ I have since learned it was sumac, a ubiquitous offering, always on the table at Persian restaurants. I have also read it is customary for the restaurant not to add any to the dishes so the diner can add it to taste.
The real star of the meal was the white basmati rice with saffron which I could not stop eating despite the fact it was a very large portion. I grew up in Brazoria County, Texas, home of the TexMati rice brand and where rice is a major crop, and I love rice but this was the most spectacular rice I had ever had.
It was a long time before I ventured into one of our city’s Persian restaurants again but recently, having a little more experience under my belt at Bijan, Café Caspian and Saffron, I decided it was time to try Kasra again - I really wanted to like it.
This visit was more successful although not without it’s own disappointments. For some reason, they were unable to serve Tah Digh, the crispy rice which I wanted as an appetizer. I settled for the Lentil Soup and while it was good it was nothing special. Lentils can either be very boring or, with the right seasonings, exciting and this tended toward the former. In addition the taftoon, a much smaller portion than before, had been delivered cool; I suspected it had been baked quite some time before.
But the entree this time was spectacular. Though I saw the ghormeh sabzi and zereshk polo being served at other tables (at Kasra, the zereshk (barberry) is served in a separate bowl to be ladled over the rice as one desires - it can be added to the basic white basmati rice with saffron on any entree for an extra charge) I went instead for the Shishleek. In online discussions of Persian cuisine this is usually described as grilled lamb chops but at Kasra it is chunks of beef tenderloin, cooked to order, and chicken breast accompanied by the white basmati rice and grilled vegetables, which included tomato, onion, bell pepper and zucchini. None of it needed any sumac but I used some anyway and came away very satisfied despite the minor disappointments in the appetizers and bread.
There doesn’t appear to be much difference between the Persian restaurants in our city; prices and menus are comparable at Kasra, Bijan, Café Caspian and Saffron (I’ve also been to Darband Shishkabob which did not impress and is just a kaboberrie anyway). One dish may be better at this restaurant, another dish at another. Kasra and Café Caspian are both table service but not that much more elegant than Bijan and Saffron (Bijan offers both counter service and table service, Saffron is counter service only).
I will continue to investigate them all as there are many more dishes I’m interested in trying.