Where can you get a decent bite to eat after nine or ten p.m. in early-to-bed San Diego? If you're anywhere near the lively neighborhood of University Heights, you'll find several comfortable spots, including a new favorite of mine, DMood. The burnt-red building is a handsome Persian version of a bistro, where even after the kitchen officially closes, you can still get terrific tidbits from the bar menu until midnight or later.
The bar menu and the appetizer menu are the same, with a wide selection of mezze (Middle-Eastern "tapas"). The "DMood sampler" (sized to feed two or three) not only makes great late-night grazing, but a fine start to dinner. These light appetizers live up to their name, awakening your appetite and leaving you eager for more. One Iranian favorite that's rarely offered in Persian restaurants is the labor-intensive kuku. Billed as a pancake, it's more like an herb frittata -- a thick, oven-browned omelet, strongly flavored by minced parsley and mint, plus vegetables, crushed walnuts, and saffron. "This is a taste you have to develop," my partner said doubtfully at first bite. I told him that the first time I ate it, I, too, found the impact of all the fresh herbs a little off-putting -- but the second time, I loved it. It goes beautifully with the dilled yogurt-cucumber dip that arrives at its side.
My partner was mesmerized by the hearty hummus, with a nutty-sweet flavor from caramelized onion (and much less cumin than normal). I was enchanted by the borani, a smoky eggplant-yogurt dip. (It's close to the never-forgotten version served at the late Faz restaurant.) We both enjoyed the almond-stuffed green olives and the mirza, an eggplant-and-tomato dip better known by its Arabic name, baba ganoush. On the combination plate, the classic Mesopotamian starter of sabzi -- raw radish, scallions, chives, whole fresh herbs, feta, and nuts (this one really is a "taste you have to develop") -- was just a hint at the edge of the plate. The breadbasket held thick and thin Middle-Eastern breads for slathering on the spreads and a few slices of bakery sourdough, plus an herbed olive-oil dip. Everything on the sampler is also available in separate, full-size versions.
Grilled calamari with mint-chili dip is another vibrant beginning or nosh. Small rings and tiny tentacles are served chilled, mingling with the classic Persian salad shirazi, combining chopped cucumber, tomato, and onion with lime juice. Alongside comes a sweet-hot condiment made of minced fresh mint, hot peppers, and a touch of sugar. A dab of this compote tossed into the salad sharpens the flavor and heightens the delight. Less rewarding were dull, dry shami, Pakistani fritters of ground meat and lentils -- minus, alas, most of the 57 varieties of spices and chilies that Paki cooks stir in to liven them up. Other starters and grazes include cheeses with grilled fruit, Serrano ham with grilled fruit, smoked salmon with cucumbers, capers and caviar, a "trio of fries" (potato, yam, and cornmeal) with gorgonzola dip, and caviar service (market price).
The soup du jour actually does change nightly -- it's not butternut squash for a week at a time. One chilly evening, it was an alluring cream of celery root, nutty-flavored, hearty, and warming, and not overwhelmed with cream. The "small" size was immense, closer to a tureen's worth than a cupful. The "large" would likely suffice for a lumberjack's whole supper. Salads, too, are gigantic. All but the shirazi are based on a giant heap of green fodder (spring mix or spinach) with light, lean dressings and tempting garnishes (beets, green apple, and goat cheese; or orange sections and orange flower-water dressing; or, with the spinach, dates, feta, and walnuts). The menu doesn't say so (and neither did our waiter), but the kitchen will be happy to serve you a half-portion -- clearly the way to go for singlets and couples. This is still a very new restaurant, and the wait-staff ask frequently what they can do for you, but you have to prod them to disclose all of DMood's secrets.
The boss entrée of the house has to be the perfectly roasted stuffed game hen. It's a big 22-ounce bird, arriving cross-legged to hold in the stuffing. Crisp-skinned and ruddy from its oven-browned pomegranate glaze, once you release its tucked-in ankles, the cavity overflows with saffron-tinged basmati rice mingling with herbs, cut strands of whole-wheat pasta, orange sections, tart barberries, and sweet golden raisins -- a genuine flavor-riot. Served with sides of tangy pomegranate-walnut compote and baby spinach dotted with pine nuts, we found it glorious -- among the most bliss-inducing Persian entrées in a town with growing numbers of Iranian eateries, including Bandar and Sadaf.
The menu offers two other variations on the theme of poultry with fruited rice pollow (i.e., pilaf's Persian name). "Babylonian rice" revives a Medieval delicacy, featuring the basmati-fruit mélange baked into a crust of lavash (thin flatbread) sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. The chicken, staring wistfully across the plate at all this exuberance, consists of skinned, boned, saffron-marinated baked breast, dry-textured and upstaged by its showier costar. Skinless breast may be healthy, but I can't say it's much fun. A third possibility (which we didn't try) is "Tah Chin chicken," poultry baked inside a dome of rice that's crusted by the tah dig, that crisped, browned rice from the bottom of the pot so prized in the Middle East.
You can also get grilled skewers of filet mignon, chicken thigh, "Moroccan" lamb, or tofu and veggies, served on a bed of simple, herbed basmati pollow. The lamb, cut from the top sirloin (just north of the leg), was terrifically tender, thanks to at least 12 hours' soaking in a yogurt marinade. Although it's grilled over gas, the skewers themselves are mesquite, lending a smoky flavor. The seasoning tasted closer to Armenian shish kebab than to spicy Moroccan pinxos, but the flavor is just fine, thank you.
Like the soup, the fish du jour changes nightly. Both courses allow the enthusiastic chef, Cecilia Tajonar, the opportunity to play with her food. We enjoyed a fish from Fiji that we'd never encountered elsewhere, called Gold-Band Opaka, with mild, firm flesh and thick skin patterned like rattlesnake hide. (It's not a true Opakapaka: According to Jay at Leong-Kuba, the restaurant's fish purveyor, its real name is Bedford -- but since nobody's ever heard of a fish named Bedford...By any name, it's a sweet-tasting fish.) It arrived in a Moroccan terra cotta tajine pot with a tall, pointy lid, plated over a heap of carrot and zucchini julienne and bathed in a sweet, subtle vegetable broth with traces of lemongrass and fennel. We enjoyed it thoroughly, while wishing we'd had time to try a previous evening's offering of monkfish served over vegetables and couscous.
[2009 Editor's Note: Dmood has since closed.]