Every year promises to be the one where Persian food finally breaks into the mainstream. It's certainly got all the elements of the next big trend: exotic ingredients like pomegranate syrup and rosewater, a storied history as the middleman of the spice route, a tradition that emphasizes fresh vegetables as much as meat and starch. And considering that the United States has been politically embroiled with Iran — present-day Persia — for more than a half-century, it seems high time for some culinary cross-pollination.
But you can't will a cuisine to happen. Despite small steps forward like last year's acclaimed cookbook The New Persian Kitchen by Louisa Shafia, for whatever reason Persian food has yet to break into the big time. Luckily, it just got even easier to seek it out. San Francisco has long had a Persian mainstay with the venerable Zare at Fly Trap, but there's a new place in town to familiarize yourself with the food of the Iranian people.
Anar, from the Persian word for "pomegranate," has moved into a lonely corner of SOMA, though once you're inside you forget all about the desolate stretch of Harrison outside its doors. With its sunny yellow walls and Persian art and artifacts, the room is a pleasant showcase for the culinary efforts of the Mohammadi family, which had a restaurant in Iran before immigrating to the United States.
Iran may be part of the Middle East, but its cuisine has its own rich history. The ancient Persian Empire made the desert bloom with a series of underground aquifers, and its food has always emphasized fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs. As a midpoint in the spice route, the empire enjoyed the best of the East and West, and drew influences from cuisines as varied as Greek, Arab, Turkish, Moroccan, Indian, and Chinese.
More than just becoming a patchwork of all of them, Persian food developed a unique, unmistakable character. Other cuisines rarely have the sweet-tart flavor profile so common in this cooking, which makes it jarringly unfamiliar even if many of the ingredients and preparations are well-known in the United States.
The most famous dish of Persia and the best thing on the menu at Anar is fesenjen, a rich stew made from walnuts, pomegranate syrup, and chicken — three ingredients that have been staples of the Persian diet for 2,000 years. It's a beautifully layered combination, with all the flavors coming together to make their own sweet and sour medley that plays off the boneless white-meat chicken in the thick broth.
Another stew often on special is gheymeh bedemjan, a stew of lamb, chickpea, and eggplant. It looks like an Indian dal or Berkeley hippie mush you've had a million times, but the dried lime in the dish gives it an unexpected sour zing that complements the softened hunks of lamb and eggplant. Reflecting the restaurant's Middle Eastern heritage, lamb appears in quite a few other items, including the buttery lamb-and-beef koobideh skewers that come on a plate with rice, lime, a roasted tomato, and flatbread.
If you order enough at Anar you will probably have an overabundance of long-grain rice at the table, some of it flavored with saffron. Even so, do request tahdig, the crispy layer from the bottom of the rice pan that's considered a delicacy. Sharing is encouraged: There will be more rice than you're likely to eat in one sitting, and with entree prices closing in on $20, a couple on a budget could do well with an appetizer or main dish split between them.
For a lighter meal, round out a rich stew or kebab with naan panir sabzi, a basket of fresh herbs (cilantro, basil, mint, and others), radishes, feta cheese, and whole wheat flatbread that can be folded into wraps. The zesty herbs whet the appetite for the rest of the meal. Dolmehs are a heartier appetizer. More savory than Greek grape leaf wraps, they have a turmeric-yellow filling of split yellow peas flecked with meat and are topped with barberries — small, tart berries somewhat like currants. And for dessert, forgo the sticky-sweet saffron rice custard in favor of Persian ice cream, flecked with pistachios.
Anar has no liquor license at the moment, though the restaurant has applied for one. But there are other interesting beverages on the menu, such as doogh, a salty, herb-flecked yogurt drink that's somewhere between a lassi and a juice-bar smoothie. It's good on its own, but takes on rounded, nuanced flavor when sipped alongside the densely spiced food, making you wonder why Americans never latched onto savory yogurt drinks like so many other cultures around the world. It takes a familiar ingredient and makes it into something exotic and unexpected — in other words, the reason many of us seek out new cuisines in the first place.