If you like Persian food in this city, you know the Persian restaurant drill. There is no mixing and matching of kebabs. The dips and salads served as appetizers do not come in any combination plate as they might in a Greek restaurant. If you want to try one of the incredible rice pilafs, you must order it à la carte. But every entree comes with a pillowy hill of plain basmati rice large enough to cushion a fall. You will eat at most a third of it.
Enter Colbeh Persian Kitchen — a new Decatur restaurant that makes a clean break with the cast-in-stone orthodoxy of Persian restaurant menus. Everything from the dips to the stews come in tasting portions, including half skewers. The bar pours a fine selection of craft beers (both tap and bottle) as well as house cocktails perfumed with the likes of saffron and cardamom. There’s even a smart wine list.
“We thought this was an opportunity to give people a choice,” said owner Syrus Rahimi, who runs the restaurant with his two sons. “We thought to be a little bit different. We know we’re introducing Persian food to the people of Decatur.”
Lucky people. Colbeh offers a classy introduction to this seductive cuisine. The food isn’t as good as that at Rumi’s Kitchen in Sandy Springs or Sufi’s in Midtown, but it offers plenty of pleasure. A meal here offers the deep resonance of stews, the saffron-kissed char of kebabs and the terrific pop of dried fruits and nuts in the rice pilafs.
A young, mostly non-Persian staff does a good job of describing the food and sharing their enthusiasm, starting with the bread service. Oblong loaves of freshly baked taftoun flatbread arrive at the table, speckled with black and white sesame seeds and sided by the traditional sabzi plate of fresh green herbs (basil, cilantro), walnuts, white cheese and butter. This bread is thick and sturdy, great when it’s hot from the oven (a remnant of the pizzeria that previously occupied this Decatur Square space), less so as it cools.
While the staff gets high marks for enthusiasm, they also seem a little green. The first loaf of bread arrives before drinks, but then none is offered with dips. Our waiter has a hard time keeping up with three tables; after spending 20 minutes with the menus, we have to flag him over in mid-rush to say we’d really, really like to order.
Good thing we order koo koo sabzi ($6). These fantastic green slabs of parsley, dill and cilantro, lightly bound with egg, are like the missing link between quiche and pesto. Kashk badenjan ($7), the warm eggplant dip with onions and whey cheese, seems stringier and greasier than other versions around town, but awfully easy to eat when smeared over hot taftoun. Shirazi salad ($6) — a dice of cucumbers, tomatoes and onions — is so bright with citrus juice it tastes like a bowl of summer.
If you’re drinking, don’t miss the olives coated in an ugly but wonderful paste of walnut and pomegranate molasses ($5). They taste righteous alongside a cool pint of a brew from Decatur-based Wild Heaven, Let There Be Light ale ($4.75).
The must-have item on this menu is joojeh kabob ($18) — a whole cornish hen cut into its mini-chicken pieces, threaded on a skewer, bathed in saffron and grilled until every piece is the picture of succulence. Add in a side of saffron rice studded with dried barberries and pistachio (zereshk polo, $6) for a heaven-sent pairing. Soltani kabob ($22) brings a skewer each of filet mignon and ground, seasoned beef.
But the fun here (speaking from the perspective of a part-time cheapskate) is in exploring the half skewers. Have a gorgeous veggie kabob ($4), if only to learn that such a thing exists. Have a nice shrimp kabob ($7) with four juicy specimens. Add in an order of baghali polo ($6), a mound of rice tossed with fistfuls of dill and fava beans, for a tableful of poppy flavors. I might also throw an excellent version of ghormeh sabzi ($13) into the mix. This wondrous green sludge is the result of cooking gallons of fresh parsley, scallions and fenugreek down with beef, kidney beans and dried lime. Fesenjon ($18), a very sweet stew made with pomegranate molasses, walnuts and beef meatballs (instead of the chicken often served in this dish) may not be to your taste any more than it was to mine.
Rahimi has done what he can with the space — a storefront so deep a bowling alley could fit inside. He finished the walls with untreated two-by-fours and cast glowing light against them to create a rustic, romantic mood. (“Colbeh” means cabin in Persian.) But it’s a cavern and you’ll have more fun at a table near the front bar, or snag one of the tables outside. Do it, even if you’re not sure what to make of Persian food. This is the place to learn.Colbeh Persian Kitchen 123 East Court Square, Decatur. 404-373-1226 Food: Classic Persian dishes on a novel mix-and-match menu Service: Friendly but a bit green Best dishes: Cornish hen kabob, koo koo sabzi, Shirazi salad Vegetarian selections: Yes, plenty Credit cards: All major cards Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 11 a.m.-midnight Fridays-Saturdays; noon-11 p.m. Sundays. Children: Fine, and most kids will enjoy this healthy fare Parking: Street parking Reservations: Yes Wheelchair access: Yes Smoking: No Noise level: Moderate Patio: A few tables facing the square out front Takeout: Yes