Few dishes are lovelier to me than the plate of herbs, salty white cheese and butter that is put out at the start of every Persian meal. I smash a lump of the feta-like cheese and a sprig of basil into a piece of warm flatbread, take a bite, and my appetite quickens: I know I’m about to partake of a Persian feast.
Soon the table will groan with platters of grilled meat; earthy stews; cooling spreads of smoky eggplant and smashed chickpeas; simple salads; and, always but always: beautiful basmati rice decorated with golden, saffron-tinted grains.
This is the kind of scene you might encounter at Taaj Kabob & Grill (sometimes listed as Taaj Market and Restaurant) in Peachtree Corners on any given day or night. Primarily a kebab house, Taaj couples a modest but excellent restaurant with a small grocery store. The market is stocked with all kinds of Persian ingredients: yogurt, pickles, tea, jam, sugar cubes, rock candy, and by the cash register in plastic bags: 2-foot-long flat sheets of Iranian flatbread.
The bread is sangak, the cornerstone of any meal at Taaj.
Neither puffy like naan nor plain like pita, sangak is similar in its way to both. It is a leavened flatbread made of whole-wheat dough, yet it is thinner, chewier and crispier than either. The sesame-sprinkled sangak is baked in an oven in the rear of the restaurant on small pebbles, an ancient technique that leaves little indentations in the thin “loaf.” Before it is brought to your table, it is sliced into manageable pieces. If you are hungry, you may gobble down half a basket of this wonderful stuff with your herbs and cheese — before the hummus and baba ghanoush can even arrive. Consider yourself blessed, for it is rare to find sangak in Atlanta.
The tray of herbs may not be as fanciful as at some of Atlanta’s other Persian restaurants, which sometimes include tarragon, mint, walnuts, radishes and olives. It’s not really a “dish” at all, just basil, cheese and butter. But that’s OK. The kebabs are the main attraction, and they are heavenly.
Start with koobideh, gently seasoned ground chicken or beef, pressed into long flat rectangles (rather than the usual sausage shape) that easily tug apart into bite-size segments. Both the chicken and the beef koobideh are equally delicious.
I also like the kebabs threaded with chunks of thinly sliced filet mignon and lamb, the latter of which is rubbed with a tangy saffron marinade that gives it a steak sauce-y quality. Both are remarkably tender, but the koobideh is the meat stick for me. These kebab platters, which can be ordered in various combos, come with rice, one charry grilled tomato, a purple cabbage slaw and slivers of marinated onions dusted with sumac.
To go with your sangak, you may want some of the classic Iranian spreads. The hummus is slick, smooth, tasty; the eggplants dips even better. We want all the aubergine! Kashk badenjoon (fried, smashed and dressed with cream of whey, crispy onion and mint); mirza ghasemi (a warm, smoky version blended with tomato sauce and garlic); and the baba ghanoush (mixed with tahini, spices and herbs, and also noticeably smoky).
Taaj serves two yogurt-based condiments, one with cucumber (mast-o-khiar) and another with shallots (mast-o-musir). Though both are good, the cucumber seems to be the most popular and may be the one to start with. (I like to drizzle the yogurt over the spicy stews and rice, or on the little meat roll-ups I fashion from sangak and kebab.) We were also taken by the traditional fatoosh salad (lettuce, tomato, onion, cucumber and strips of crispy flatbread, moistened with a nice vaguely sweet salad dressing) and the crispy fried falafel patties.
Among the non-kebab entrees, both the lamb shank (in a broth of warm spices like cinnamon and clove) and the classic ghormeh sabzi are solid. Ghormeh sabzi is a veal and kidney bean stew that gets its pungent flavor from dried limes and its muddy green color from the herb-paste base (sabzi) that’s ubiquitous in Persian cookery. Here the sabzi is made with spinach, cilantro, parsley and chives, a fairly standard recipe. Just make sure you request your shank with the baghali polo, a buttery, dill-flecked fava pilaf that’s a substantial side dish on its own.
We were less in love with the khoresh gheymeh, an orange lentil stew zingy with fenugreek and dried lime and topped garnish of canned potato sticks. The flavors were interesting, not unappealing, but I wouldn’t make a point of ordering this dish. Not when there are such exceptional meats, breads and dips at hand.
After three visits, I’m happy to report that Taaj ranks among the best Persian in Atlanta. You can find restaurants with deeper menus, fancier trappings, beer, wine. But the sangak and koobideh cannot be topped.
TAAJ KABOB & GRILL
10 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Sundays. 6385 Spalding Drive, Suite B, Peachtree Corners. 770-559-8799, taajmarketandrestaurant.com.
Recommended dishes: Mast-o-khiar. Hummus. Kashk badenjoon. Mirza ghasemi. Baba ghanoush. Falafel. Fatoosh. Ghormeh sabzi. Lamb shank. Beef koobideh. Chicken koobideh. Lamb kebab. Barg kebab.
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