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Review: Sufi's

Persian cuisine whirls into South Buckhead

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At its best, Persian food is one of those cuisines that can totally re-jigger your palate. Food becomes new again; flavors you had relegated to minor roles in the theater of taste become main characters, full of intrigue and delicious malice. Walnuts rise above their station as provider of crunch to Toll House cookies and foil to apples — they thicken sauce, they tame sweetness, they put bitter in a new light, a dusky, sexy hue. Pomegranate shows its savory wiles. Fenugreek loses and then regains its mystery, going from "huh?" to "oh!" to "hmmm."

Historically in Atlanta, you've had to travel to experience Persian food, both the sublime and the mediocre. While the city has a robust Iranian population, the restaurants serving that population have traditionally been OTP, mainly in Sandy Springs but also in Marietta and beyond. Now Sufi's has opened in South Buckhead, and the world of Persian flavors takes a step toward the mainstream.

At Sufi's, revelations are possible, although not guaranteed. Flanked by the dining room's deep red brocade walls and paintings of whirling dervishes, and seated under a ceiling of white fabric, you might encounter some form of culinary enlightenment. Or you may only get partway there.

After you're served the traditional warm flatbread with a plate of olives, walnuts, butter, a feta-like fresh white cheese, radishes, cucumbers and herbs, there are a couple of appetizers that shouldn't be missed on the road to taste bud paradise. In the dolmeh, which so often disappoint with bland rice wrapped in sour grape leaves, your faith ought to be restored. Piping hot and sitting on a bed of yogurt, these classic snacks contain not only rice but also yellow split peas, chives, tarragon and an achingly sweet/tart pomegranate sauce that changes the role of the dish from bit-part to lead performer.

The other star on the appetizer list is the kashk bademjan, a caramelized eggplant goop, brought to its thick creamy texture by the addition of yogurt whey. Eggplant often strikes me as having more narcotic qualities (as in, I need my fix) than other vegetables, and this dip is perhaps its most dangerously enslaving incarnation — rich, sweet, tangy and luxurious. Other appetizer dips have their share of flavor and comfort — the "Sufi's special," bringing a spicy tang to its eggplant, tomato and chickpea contents, the hummus respectable and familiar.

On these blustery winter days, a bowl of ash joe soup warms and soothes, rife with mint and tarragon in a slurry of barley, lentils and red beans. As with the majority of the menu at Sufi's, I've had superior versions of this soup elsewhere, but the dish's fried shallots and mixture of acid tang and creamy base is nonetheless gratifying.

The menu has a large selection of kabobs, served over the fluffy, flavorful basmati rice. The best is the whole Cornish hen, hacked into manageable pieces and imbued with a lemony marinade. Other meats are tender and appetizing, although I found the rack of lamb slightly overcooked.

While kabobs are an important part of Persian cuisine, the stews have always had my heart, and this is an area where Sufi's delivers tasty versions but nothing illuminating. Fesenjoon, the stew of pomegranate and walnuts that can sometimes be a wicked dance between bitter, sweet and savory, is a pleasant dish of meat cooked in a brown, sweetish sauce. Likewise, ghormeh sabzi, a stew that features the alluringly strange fenugreek, is less bitter, weird and ultimately seductive than other versions I've had. Very little about Sufi's cooking seems dumbed-down for us intown eaters, but the stews feint a little to the safe side.

Persian dining rooms are often fancy, even when home-style cooking is served under the billowing fabrics, and Sufi's is no different. Which isn't to say the restaurant is stuffy or uncomfortable, just that the aim is for class, and the valet parking, black-clad waiters and formal service support that aim. As with many late-year openings, the ownership decided it was not worth paying a full year's fee to have a liquor license for a few weeks, so the booze won't start flowing until Jan. 1, at which time a full bar and beer and wine list will be available.

Sufi's may not offer all the epiphanies of certain OTP Persian restaurants, but it gives us a taste of that magic. For intowners, a little bit of culinary mysticism so close to home is welcome revelation indeed.

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