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Welcome daydream

Mirage's Persian pleasures create an inviting post-holiday variance


Come January, I'm sick of the all-American meal. No more turkey, ham, sweet potatoes, mac-n-cheese, green bean casserole or pecan pie for a good, long while. I crave a sharp right turn to my diet -- food that's slightly exotic but not too jarring, intriguing on the palate, warming yet frisky.

Something like Persian cuisine, with its juicy kabobs, herbaceous stews and tangy dips and side dishes.

Sandy Springs has morphed into the official epicenter of the city's Persian culinary community (though Shiraz in Alpharetta, with its abundant buffet, is a notable exception). I can certainly fall sway to the swarthy charms of Shiraz's buffet-less sister restaurant, Persepolis, on Roswell Road. But if you're new to Persian, venture down the road a bit more to Mirage in the shopping center on the corner of Abernathy. You won't feel intimidated or out of place.

Actually, chances are good you'll blend right in. The dining room was unexpectedly crowded during my first dinnertime visit right before Christmas. A woman wearing a candy cane sweater and a pre-out-of-the-closet Rosie O'Donnell haircut patted her husband's cheek affectionately while their daughter ran to the restroom. A gaggle of stoner types in one corner ravenously shoveled food into their mouths. Interracial couples and gay duos sat contentedly among boisterous Iranian families. Hello, when did Sandy Springs become such a hotbed of diversity?

Maybe it's just the accessible sensuality of the food served at Mirage. Order a glass of sanguinary sour cherry juice to rouse the senses as you scan the menu. You'll see lots of esoteric words and descriptions, but variations on themes soon make themselves apparent.

"This is a kabob place. You don't like kabobs, you don't come back here," remarks owner Farah Arjmand to a nearby table. OK, then -- kabobs it is. There are nearly 20 variations of skewered meat available: beef, chicken, lamb, seafood and combinations thereof. Marinated chunks of chicken can be a tad dry, so if you're in the mood for poultry, go for the Mirage Kabob, which includes alternating pieces of chicken and tender, succulent lamb.

I'm more inclined toward kabobs on the opposite ends of the food chain. The classic kebab of ground sirloin and onion -- yes, it tastes like Middle Eastern hamburger -- makes an artful combination with a skewer of simple, succulent filet mignon strips. It's an astute juxtaposition: one is homey, the other regal.

The surprise find, though, is the shrimp kebab. A generous row of buxom shrimp is marinated in a buttery sauce and charred lightly around the edges. A hillock of rice tossed with tart dried barberries (akin to dried cranberries) tempers the fire-tinged sweetness of the shrimp. Who knew crustaceans could take so well to a time-honored genre of cooking that is typically meant for meat?

The kebabs all come with a whopping portion of plain steamed rice, but you can substitute one of the far more interesting rice polos (the ancestral precursor to pilafs and biryanis) for a couple extra bucks. Since most of the kebabs fall into the reasonable $10 to $15 range, I'd recommend it. Try pairing shireen polo -- aglitter with raisins, saffron and orange zest -- with lamb, or the sour cherry-studded albaloo polo with chicken.

The owners may tout the kebabs, but it's the stews and creamy, dunk-worthy dishes that keep me yearning for Persian food. I could happily sate myself with a feast of Mirage's appetizers, each with quixotic names that make me want to pull on a white robe and whirl like a dervish. Kashk-o-bademjan combines eggplant roasted to a smoky puree with mellow garlic, mint, a healthy drizzle of cream of whey and frizzled onions. It's downright erotic, as our two yogurt dips -- mast-o-khiar, flecked with dried herbs and cucumber, and mast-o-mousir, flavored with sultry roasted shallots.

These dishes, as well as the traditional platter of feta, herbs and walnuts known as panir-o-sabzi, are meant to be scooped up with flatbread. Mirage's bread, so wide and round it slumps over its plate, is softer and less crackery than other versions I've had. If I yearn for a little crunch, I'll also order tahdig, the crispy layer of caramelized rice that results from the Persian method of cooking it. The tahdig is broken into pieces and served with qeymeh, a mild stew of yellow split peas. It's particularly good with mast-o-mousir slathered over it.

In fact, all the dips are ideal for jazzing up the snowy landslide of plain rice that accompanies the entree stews, called khoreshts. The most common is khoresht-e qormeh sabzi, a hearty, heady simmer of beef and kidney beans with handfuls of herbs like chives, coriander and fenugreek leaves. Dried lime imparts an indispensable, burnished sour zing. Fesenjan, a dusky combination of ground walnuts and pomegranate with chicken breast, is sweeter than others I've had. The stew very much needs whatever savory notes chicken can impart to save the dish from being cloying.

Which brings me to a disconcerting discovery: vegetarians may be disappointed with their meals. It's not that Mirage doesn't try to please the non-meat eaters. They have a full page of selections to choose from. Problem is, it's all the usual dishes -- minus the meat. So shireen polo without chicken breast? It's an unruly pile of rice with dried fruit. Veggie kebabs? A dull collage of grilled peppers, squash and onions. And the stews, such as the fesenjan, cry out for meat's toothy presence. Makes you wish Persians had a tofu-like substitute.

So you can guess my advice for herbivores: Stick to the luscious starters. Those alone will transport you to a romantic land far away from the recent memories of holiday office parties and dysfunctional family gatherings.

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