Shundeez

This affordable Persian grill is one of the best spots on Chestnut Hill, with careful cooking and confident flavors.

Posted: December 16, 2007

Whenever I eat Persian food, I always keep an eye out for the tadik.

Tadik is the dangerously addictive cracker of toasted basmati that forms a golden crust at the bottom of a proper pot of Persian rice. And a plate of it, poised one recent Saturday night atop the open kitchen's counter at Shundeez in Chestnut Hill, was going really fast.

Oh yes, I ate my share, snapping a sheet of deeply browned rice against the softness of a juicy chicken kabob, sweeping it into the tangy darkness of a pureed pomegranate and walnut sauce called fesenjon.

But it was owner Mohsen Lavasani - worked into a jolly frenzy over his grill - who kept sneaking precious pieces off the pile for a snack. No wonder tadik is rarely on menus. It hardly makes it out of the kitchen. And only a busy restaurant really goes through enough pots of rice to offer it regularly.

By that measure, Shundeez should be roasting up mountains more of that crusty rice than it does. If tadik is the secret treasure nestled at the bottom of every fragrant pot, this eatery is a hidden prize at the top of Chestnut Hill.

Tucked into the far corner of a strip mall behind Borders and the bus station, in the space formerly occupied by Roller's, this affordable and tasty grill is easily one of the neighborhood's best restaurants.

It's a major step up for Lavasani and his wife, Mahtab, who ran a series of farmers' market food stands (and one still in Chestnut Hill) before landing here.

The restaurant is a pleasantly simple room, with glassed-in walls and blond oak trim, curried-orange and pea-green accents, and white linens draped atop the closely spaced tables. It has an easy bistro mood, nice enough for a date, but also family friendly.

It could still use some polish in the service department - the friendly but flighty dining-room staff was completely different on each of my three visits. That this BYOB also charges a corkage fee ($5 per bottle, with an $8.50 max) is also a slight surprise, considering the ordinary stemware.

But the menu has been consistently good, and represents the broadest selection and most carefully crafted expression of traditional Persian cooking in the area. The food of Iran is similar to that of other Middle Eastern cuisines, but it is also distinct, with a subtler spicing profile to its marinades and meats and an elegant penchant for soft aromatics like saffron and cardamom. When I first visited Shundeez a few years ago, I found the flavor volume to be tuned a shade too low, as if the kitchen were approaching its largely mainstream clientele with too much caution.

There is more confidence in the flavors here now, which are carefully wrought during the day by Mahtab and Mohsen's mom, Seynoush Lavasani, who was a brunch chef at the Valley Forge Hilton several years ago.

Kabobs are this menu's best bets, which makes sense, considering it was named after a town in Iran renowned for its kabobs.

All are carefully cooked over a grill that avoids getting too hot, and come over a bed of fluffy basmati, topped with a stripe of saffron-tinged grains and melted butter.

But the secret to these meats, it seems, is in the onion juice, which provides milky zest to marinades without the onion's pungent zap. It seems to amplify the saffron and otherwise simple seasonings in the moist chicken kabob. It also lends extra depth to a filet mignon that is flattened and grilled along the wide skewer (ours was a bit overcooked, but still tasty).

Browned onions add moisture and light sweetness to the ground chicken kabob (koubideh), which is also tinted with saffron, cumin and cardamom. The ground beef kabob, meanwhile, is more simply seasoned with turmeric. The tender lamb chops, though, were my favorite of the grilled red meats.

The chicken kabobs, meanwhile, come in a couple of variations with sauce, including an elegantly mild cashew curry, and the fesanjon, a dark puree of walnuts and pomegranate molasses that, with its sweetness, tang and nutty richness, is one of the best flavors on this menu, or anywhere in Chestnut Hill.

The Lavasanis offer a number of other homey dishes beyond the grill that are also worth a try. I loved the coo coo sabzi, essentially a spinach and herb frittata drizzled with tart homemade yogurt. The sauteed spinach for nargessy, served with a scrambled egg, is redolent of cumin and cardamom.

The special Persian noodle soup (ash reshteh) is exotic comfort in a bowl. The broth, enriched with bouillon made from dried yogurt, is greened with herbs, and contrasts the textures of myriad beans and tender Persian noodles.

Shundeez isn't perfect yet. I'd wish for softer (perhaps housebaked?) pitas, rather than the quickly stale store-bought ones, to scoop up the luxurious kashk bademjon eggplant puree. I'd jettison the dull brought-in American desserts (apple pie? carrot cake?) in favor of more Persian confections, like the rich homemade saffron ice cream splashed with rose water and pistachios.

The kitchen should also be more careful with its expensive items, like the easily dried-out swordfish for $22. The stewed lamb shanks were superbly tender and their sauces intriguing - one a tomatoey eggplant puree, the other a bitter herbal brew, but for $23 I expected something more sophisticated than meat plopped in a bowl.

Many of these are home-foods still in mid-evolution to the restaurant dining room. But the most elusive part, the flavor, is already there.

And who knows, if things really pick up, Mahtab may even indulge in her whole repertoire of tadik variations, crisping the rice with spinach, romaine hearts, sweet potatoes or pita.

I can't wait to try it - if the kitchen doesn't get to it first.


Next week restaurant critic Craig LaBan reviews the Belgian Cafe in Fairmount. Contact him at claban@phillynews.com.

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