So how do you eat this?" Margaret said, pointing at her very first serving of the Iranian stew dizie, a complicated concoction involving little bowls of soup, of mashed stew, of powerfully sour pickled vegetables, of fresh herbs.
"You tear up pieces of this bread," said the waiter.
"Yes . . .," said Margaret.
"And you put them in the bowl . . ."
"Okay . . .," said Margaret.
"And you take this spoon . . ."
"And . . .," said Margaret.
". . . and then you eat it. It's soup!"
"If you want some herbs, you can eat those too."
Canary is an Iranian sandwich shop on Westwood's Iranian strip, a house of kebabs in the most kebab-intensive neighborhood in California. The restaurant's facade is yellow - canary yellow - and daubed with cheerful admonitions in Farsi. Inside, there is a bright mural of flowers on one wall, and several dozen giant glass apothecary jars, arrayed on every horizontal surface, filled with gallons of pickling garlic. As W.C. Fields once said of the garlic-packing town of Gilroy, you could marinate a steak just by hanging it on a clothesline here.
If it is your first time at Canary, you will undoubtedly be steered to one of the kebab plates, skewers of grilled lamb or chicken served with the usual Iranian accouterments of saffron-gilded rice, grilled tomatoes, and a small green salad of exceptional freshness, dressed simply with citrus juice and a little oil. You may be able to talk the guy behind the counter into a small Styrofoam container of thick yogurt laced with quantities of fresh garlic sufficient to make your eyes water, like a great Greek tsatsiki overbuilt to military specifications, or possibly a little dish of Canary's torshi, made with herbs and lots of that vinegared garlic you see curing all around you. I am a fan of the homemade sour yogurt drink, dough - pronounced doog - which is garnished with crumbled mint.
Pay attention, and you may notice that most of the people in the restaurant are lunching not on kebabs, but on various stews or something that you later come to recognize as an Iranian-style sandwich made with a split and grilled Hebrew National frank, a hollowed-out length of toasted French bread, and condiments similar to those you might expect to find on a Chicago-style hot dog, only inflected with more garlic. The sensation is a strange cross between Jewish excess, Middle Eastern flavors and Cuban-sandwich texture, like something you might hope to find in a cross-cultural corner restaurant somewhere in Miami Beach. These sandwiches, also available with grilled lamb's tongue, grilled chicken or grilled beef, come with a fistful of freshly made potato chips.
Canary, though, is obviously more than a kebab or sandwich place, and a couple of visits later, I traced a finger down the entire Farsi-only, right-hand side of the menu, making a guy behind the counter translate every dish. This did not make him happy.
"The first one," he said, "is lamb-and-lentil stew that we pound after we cook it, and you drink the juice as soup."
"Like dizie?" I asked, remembering a favorite restaurant in Glendale that used to specialize in the dish.
"Of course, dizie," he said with a dismissive nod, as if he was wondering why I bothered to ask. "The next one you don't want . . . because it is made with the tongue of the lamb. The third one is meat with grain; we call it haleem. Then is heart, kidney, liver, things like that."
I like haleem, at least the thick, stewy Syrian version of the dish, and I like the beefy, ultraspicy pastes of meat and shredded wheat you find sometimes in Muslim South Asian cafes even more. Canary's haleem, though, is one of the strangest dishes I've ever come across, essentially a bowl of Cream of Wheat spiked with shreds of cooked turkey, and paved with a quarter-inch layer of ground cinnamon.
"Here," the waiter said, and plunked down a canister by my plate. "Add sugar. That way it is slightly less bland."
The dizie, the aforementioned plate of lamb paste, is undoubtedly wonderful comfort food on rainy winter days, but the flavor, the consistency, is a little monochromatic, and although the broth pounded out of the mixture was as rich a tomato-lamb soup as one could ever hope to find, you pretty much got the point after a couple of bites.
We ordered a sandwich to go, made with a fried vegetable patty, "kotlet," that was remarkably similar to decent falafel, and we had a picnic lunch in the car.
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Canary House of Sandwiches, 1942 Westwood Blvd., Westwood; (310) 470-1312. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Lunch for two, food only, $8-$14. No alcohol. Parking lot. MC, V. Recommended dishes: garlic yogurt; lamb kebab; dizie.