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Persepolis

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What about 'bob?: Persepolis may change perceptions of Persian food

It's not easy for any new restaurant to build a following, and Persian places probably face extra hurdles. American diners may have a knee-jerk hostility to the country now known as Iran, given the current geopolitical climate of U.S. saber-rattling. And less cosmopolitan patrons may lump all Middle-Eastern cuisine as equally "foreign."

But Sandy Spring's Persepolis is perfectly friendly to local palates and dining expectations, with apparently plenty of regular neighborhood customers beyond Atlanta's Persian community. With its rich array of flavors and fragrances, it's a rare jewel along a heavily trafficked stretch of Roswell Road that's otherwise been left to the Olive Gardens.

Located behind Shahrzad International Market, Persepolis' low-slung building resembles a re-modeled real estate office from the parking lot. Drab though the outside may be, the interior is polished and cozy, with cream-colored walls and decorative columns. The two dining areas almost suggest residential living rooms converted for public use, especially with the fireplace on the upper level.

Meals at dinner come accompanied by complimentary "taftoun," an imposing piece of flatbread akin to a pizza crust the approximate shape of a tongue. One of Persepolis' highlights, the taftoun is warm, soft and just a bit flaky on the exterior. It comes with a plate of mint and cilantro leaves, cubes of feta cheese, onion, radishes and butter pats in foil, and the idea is that you tear off bits of bread and fold it over the garnish of your choice. You'll want to experiment with flavors and textures, but the bread is yummy on its own.

Also use the bread as a vehicle for the various dipping appetizers, most of which you can sample on the weekday lunch buffet ($10.99) or order a la carte. The golden-tan hummus is highly garlicky and has a smooth texture, while the white musto-kiar ($3.99), a mix of chopped cucumber, spices and yogurt, is cool and soothing enough to be a palate cleanser between the more extreme- flavored items, such as the kashk-o-bodenjoon ($4.99). Eggplant sauteed with herbs and spices, topped with cream of whey and strings of onions, it's a fascinatingly complex blend of tastes but almost overpoweringly rich, and too much dominated by the use of dried mint.

While Persepolis has numerous vegetarian basmati rice dishes, the menu seems most proud of its kebob entrees, which arrive on plates alongside a bed of long-grained rice, the lightly charred morsels still lined up as though the skewer were removed seconds before. I've tried the shish kabob ($14.99), which features marinated and charbroiled beef tenderloins, onions and bell peppers, and the lamb and loin special ($16.99), marinated skewers of rack of lamb.

With each, the flavors of the peppers and onions delectably infuse the neighboring chunks of meat, and if you squeeze the crescents of lemon provided, it enhances the grilled, fleshy flavors even further. But in both cases, though the meats are tender and the portions generous, I was still tempted to reach for the salt, the seasoning falling just a little short for my taste.

Even though the meats available at the lunch buffet had simpler flavors by comparison, I found the juicy pieces of beef and chicken more memorable, and relished the slightly fatty but pleasing pungent hunks of roast lamb served off the bone. The buffet also featured a beef stew with lentils (a little too oily but somewhat reminiscent of Georgia Brunswick stew) and a subtle but intriguing rice selection with dill and lima beans.

At times the customers can slow down the servers (several of whom, you can't help but notice, are strikingly attractive). And I've noticed that the staff wipes down recently vacated table-tops with Windex, briefly adding an unwelcome presence of ammonia to the room's splendid aroma of spicy cooking. But mostly the restaurant strikes such a balance of assimilated hospitality and authentic cuisine that Persepolis can alter a diner's perception of what Persian cooking can be.

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