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From Persia with love

Falafel Cafe excels in Persian, muddles through standard Middle Eastern


Hotlanta's signature, sweltering weather has officially settled in. Now that the summer heat has downgraded my appetite from constantly half-starved to merely ravenous, I start looking for refreshing, lighter foods that won't have me sliding under my desk for a midday nap. Something with lots of green vegetables and leafy herbs that get stuck in my teeth. Something like the food served at Falafel Cafe in Marietta.

It's fairly safe to trust cuisines developed over millennia under a broiling sun to have an intrinsically cooling effect. Falafel Cafe offers cooking from two Middle Eastern traditions. There's the standard stuff that everyone knows and may or may not love -- hummus and tabbouleh and the like. But since owner Reza Gharaat bought the restaurant a few years back, his food has largely shifted to seductive, esoteric delights of Persian fare. One may wonder why he didn't change the restaurant's name, but given the relative obscurity of Persian food in this country, how many folks would show up at a place called Ash-e-Reshteh Cafe?

You might have a hard time believing you'll be seduced by the food when you walk into the place. It's located in a strip mall on Cobb Parkway behind a Waffle House and a transmission repair shop. The services of an interior designer haven't exactly been enlisted. Tables are a tad rickety, and areas of wall not covered in generic, vaguely exotic prints have nail holes or unused picture hangers for decoration. The looks of the place remind me of the ethnic restaurants right around the corner from my college dorm in Boston.

In fact, Life University is just down the street. The customer base is pretty much divided into health-minded, bone snap-crackle-and-popping students who swing by to pick up a falafel wrap to go and Iranian families who settle in for the Persian food.

I'll take the latter myself, and I'll start with Kashk-o-Bademjan, a dense but silken eggplant dip drizzled with cream of whey and garnished with a clump of gooey caramelized onions. It's served with smokin' hot flatbread fresh from the griddle. This is food meant for sharing, and since most of the appetizers here cost $3.50 or less, don't be stingy about ordering other dishes that put the flatbread to work as a shoveling tool. Hone in particularly on the yogurty creations, including the mellow spinach Boorani and the soothing Maust-O-Khyar with cucumber and dried mint.

I long for Persian stews the way other people long for Hershey bars. Thick purees are infused with elusive, unexpected jolts of flavor -- the posh sexiness of saffron, the uplifting kick of dried lime and lemon, the tense sweetness of tomato. The brick red lamb shank stew, served with a heaping stockpile of dilled rice, is such a sophisticated treat that I'm inspired to get up and do my whirling dervish routine around the dining room floor. If you're with a crowd, order the herbaceous beef variation known as Gormeh Sabsi. The combination of cilantro, parsley and fenugreek in the mix is pleasantly astringent and compliments the other tastes on the table, but I wouldn't order it alone.

Kebabs offer a simple, unabashedly carnivorous contrast to the complex stews (Persian is a rather meaty cuisine, but there's plenty for vegetarians elsewhere on the menu). Try the golden chicken kebabs or the succulent yet lean beef tenderloin. There's a kebab of ground sirloin, basically hamburger on a stick, which subs nicely as a Persian take on the classic summer indulgence. Tilapia filets, buttery in texture and color from a gentle marinade, have a similarly clean, spare appeal.

I'm not crazy about the restaurant's namesake. The falafel is flattened into disks, which leaves it dry in the middle. Hummus is ordinary hummus, though the tabbouleh salad has a nice lemony pucker. It's easy to see Gharaat's culinary heart lays closer to the exquisite dips and stews of his native country.

Falafel's current staff will take you right back to your high school summer jobs. The chief server / food preparer on my visits is a young woman with braces and a sweet smile. I'm not certain if she's old enough yet to drive, but she sure can zip around the kitchen grilling bread, wrapping gyros and dishing out blizzards of rice. Her busboy partner is a heavy-lidded lad who looks like a character from Dazed and Confused.

By meal's end, the table is packed with little dishes and I'm sitting back in my chair, contented but not overstuffed. Baklava? They have two varieties -- the traditional, super sweet nut affair (and when the menu says homemade, it ain't joshing: I watched a woman drop a sheet pan of the stuff off while her children waited in the car) and a smaller kind reeking of rosewater. You can guess which one I prefer.

The other option is to just grab a piece of candy by the cash register while the earnest young server is ringing you out. And when she waves goodbye and beams at you with her toothy, metallic grin, it's hard not to grin back, even though you know your teeth are full of parsley.

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