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Close to the Flames 

Tehrangeles’ best kebabs

Wednesday, Sep 12 2007
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Even the quickest glance into Flame, the slick Iranian restaurant on the Tehrangeles stretch of Westwood Boulevard, reveals the shiny clay sphere at its heart, a giant tiled eyeball, its pupil shooting fire, constantly tended by men who prod the blaze with long metal rods and wipe its gleaming surfaces clean. Every so often a chef will feed a bit of dough into the center of the monster, called a tanor, and a few seconds later, pull out a sheet of perforated flatbread: thin and crisp at the edges but tending toward a chewy puffiness in the middle, leaking steam, tinged with the flavor of char. Regulars know that you can pretty much make a meal of this tanori bread, singed and still smoking, smeared with cold butter and wrapped around an onion, especially if you accompany it with the house’s panir sabzi platter: a big plate of fresh mint, lemony Persian basil and superpungent Persian tarragon, along with walnuts soaked in salt water and a block of squeaky feta cheese. A sandwich of cheese and onion and herbs wrapped in the hot bread is happiness itself.

An old joke implies that every Iranian restaurant has exactly the same menu, and Flame is pretty much guilty as charged. You will find the usual range of kebab plates, accompanied by the same enormous drifts of rice; the same bowls of yogurt-based white-garlic dip and the vinegary Iranian pickles called torshi, the same four or five stews — the pomegranate-walnut concoction called fesenjon, the vegetable/salted lime stew gormeh sabzi, the tomatoey split peas called ghemeh — served either as part of a combination plate or as a sauce with an order of crunchy tah dig, the oily, golden crust pulled off the bottom of the rice pot. The elaborate ash reshteh, a thick, tart chowder spiked with noodles, red beans, a handful of herbs and a gooey shot of the semi-dried whey called kashk, is unusually good, but is basically the same dish you will find up and down the boulevard. Even the half-dozen polos, pilafs flavored with things like sour cherries or lima beans and dill, are more or less the varieties you’ll find everywhere else, although they are of exceptional quality, especially the vivid-green sabzi polo flavored with what seems like handfuls of garlic and minced herbs.

Iranian cuisine is famous for the delicate intricacies of its home cooking, often considered the greatest food culture of the Middle East. The southern wall of the dining room is dominated by a huge portrait of the restaurant’s chef, a stunningly beautiful woman named Zahra Mostashari. Much of the produce is organic, bought at farmers markets, and the restaurant is one of the few Iranian places in the area that serve halal food. But Flame is basically a place to get kebabs — juicy skewers of ground chicken or marinated chicken breast, tartly mineral rack of lamb, shish kebab and fish kebab, and a wonderful kebab of cornish game hen.

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The menu features several illustrated pages explaining Flame’s organic, free-range beef, sourced from a herd of wild-born Herefords roaming a volcanic island near Siberia in the frigid Bering Sea, grass-fed cattle with enough seaweed in their diets to give them the Omega-3 of salmon, and Flame’s koobideh, gently spiced ground-beef kebabs made with the meat, are the best in town, rippling cylinders of charred cowflesh that ooze hot juice when you bite into them — koobideh that tastes of great beef. The barg and the chengeh kebab, made with filet mignon that may or may not be made with the Aleutian beef — the meat company’s Web site seems to indicate that only ground beef is available at the moment — is as grainy and overmarinated as most Iranian beef kebabs seem to be. Stick to the koobideh.

The restaurant occupies the shiny quarters that used to house the apparently unrelated Sharezad Flame, and the dining room is encrusted with marble and brass, glowing pinkly at the edges, irrigated with moaning Iranian pop that for the most part does not coincide with what is showing on the big flat-screen televisions that gird the interior. Even at lunch, the customers tend to be better-dressed than they are anywhere this side of Spago and the Grill, not just slim-fit suits and Prada, but silk suits that have obviously been custom-made, dresses from the best tailors in Beverly Hills, fine linen shirts whose sea-foam gauziness could probably be the subject of an ode. Flame is the nicest place on this street.

Flame Persian Cuisine, 1442 Westwood Blvd., Westwood, (310) 470-3399 or www. flame persiancuisine.com. Open daily 11:30 a.m.–10:30 p.m. No alcohol. Street parking. AE, MC, V. Dinner for two, food only, $25–$45; $8–$10 lunch specials. Recommended dishes: panir sabzi; koobideh; lubia polo.

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