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.
There are several house-made desserts: rather thick crêpes with berries and mascarpone, or with apples, cider, and mascarpone; a chocolate concoction; and "Persian cream," a parfait of unbruléed crème brûlée topped with warm, grilled strawberries and blueberries. What our waiter neglected to mention when he reeled off the list was the Persian sorbet and rich-textured Persian ice creams, the latter available in an aphrodisiacal trilogy of pistachio, saffron-rosewater, and orange-blossom flavors. These are the fragrant foods of Omar Khayyam's paradise.
DMood is as good to look at as it is to eat at. Its striking decor combines modern whimsy and Arabian Nights antiquities -- Chinese carved wooden gateways (front and back) with black iron fixtures, pointed arches and wall niches shaped as pointed arches containing bejeweled paisley ornaments and candles or masks, and a four-panel red canvas of bold Arabic calligraphy dominating one wall. (It's a quote from 14th-century Persian poet Hafez: "Come and join me for a glass of wine, let's fall in love and create something beautiful.") The banquettes along both walls have calfskin-patterned seats and colorful pillow-backs made of 150-year-old Mongolian fabric hangings (beautiful and tattered), while the backrests of the sculptural wooden chairs are topped with the same materials. There's a rustic open ceiling in the restaurant, but over the small bar in back the ceiling is covered, the better to bear the ornate Moroccan hanging lamps that make it look a real (indoor) oasis.
The unclothed tables are set with asymmetrical ovoid ceramic bowls (which will serve as your all-purpose plates for breads and appetizers) and with metal napkin rings adorned with large glass "gems" or ornaments, resembling costume jewelry for giants. The napkins themselves are heavy paper. The sound system is tuned to announcer-free satellite radio, making for some eclectic experiences in modern popular music. One evening, we suffered through a long track (in don't-ask-me-what musical genre) of weak groaning, like Yoko Ono on heroin -- with asthma. But sometime later, along came a slo-mo take on New Orleans blues that I'd rush to buy if I knew the name of the band. Friday and Saturday nights after 10:00, the house often features equally eclectic entertainment -- DJs, live music, belly-dancers, or whatever cultural expression the well-traveled owners happen to fancy. The mood at DMood is as cosmopolitan as it gets.
ABOUT THE OWNERS AND THE CHEF
Owners Nadareh Fanaiean and Farzin Tafayeh, business partners for a little more than a year and best friends for over a decade, were both born in Iran. They belong to the gentle, Persia-born Baha'i religion, whose central tenet prescribes peace and brotherhood among all humankind. This philosophy has so irked most of Iran's rulers that the sect has suffered rigorous and repeated persecution. Hence, DMood's guiding spirits have led the life of sophisticated exiles: Nadareh, who left her homeland as a teenager, is a registered nurse who still puts in shifts at the geriatric unit at UCSD hospital in Hillcrest, while Farzin's an anaesthesiologist M.D. who still practices full-time. Educated in Europe, both have traveled the world -- Istanbul, Paris, Barcelona, and Stockholm are among Nadareh's previous addresses. But it was her newfound devotion to surfing that brought the couple to San Diego.
"You've heard the expression 'old souls'? I think we are such old souls, this must be our last chance to come back to life again," says Nadareh. "The blessing of our travel -- some voluntary, some not -- is that we have met so many great people and learned so many great cultures. I lived about eight years in the Bay Area and have spent a lot of time in New York. We are both big fans of eating out, celebrating. The reason we came to San Diego is that Farzin was doing rotation for his schooling and he had to come here, and I'd gotten into surfing at the age of 37. (I'm 41 now.) It became one of my biggest passions, and when I visited him here, I decided to move here because the water isn't as cold as in the Bay Area. Now when I travel, it's always to beach towns -- Costa Rica, Peru, Hawaii, Mexico's south. I even went to Tel Aviv, and I surfed in the Middle East for the first time in my life.
"We tried and tried to find a place in San Diego where we and all of our friends could hang out. We continually have visitors from all over the world, because we're very involved in social concerns like public health and civic decision-making. Here, we started missing the strong culture of other cities where we'd lived. And we used to have parties and cook for 30, 40 people. So when this space became available -- it was a warehouse owned by an old friend from Afghanistan -- it was the right time, right place, for us to open a restaurant. It was really hard for us to explain our ideas about dining, entertainment, having a neighborhood place for the community to hang out, so we decided -- why not just make it and share it with everybody who lives here?"
It took nearly a year to get all the permits and to design, renovate, and furnish the space (using local artists and craftspeople) and to hire the personnel to create this restaurant, which opened a little over two months ago. "It's been a giant ride -- exhaustion and excitement," says Nadareh. "DMood is like a newborn baby to me; I try to nurse it as best as I can." When she was looking for a chef, several people mentioned Cecilia Tajonar, and the multiple recommendations led to the decision to hire her. Then Nadareh and Farzin trained her for months to cook their favorite Iranian dishes, and together, the three of them worked out the current menu. Future plans include having a "hookah lounge" on the back patio and entertainment during brunches there. Lunch service will resume as soon as the noisy construction on the next-door neighbor's restaurant is over.
Chef Cecilia Tajonar has been cooking professionally for ten years. "I'm from Tijuana, your neighbor right across the border," she laughs. "My mom raised me in the kitchen, so I learned to cook at a really young age. My mother used to run a banquet facility, so from age ten on I would help her with cooking and serving. So I was raised in the restaurant industry, and it appealed to me a lot. I've always been an inquisitive person -- I cannot sit behind a desk.
"I went to France to learn professional cooking. I didn't study at cooking school, I did a work-internship program, so I worked all over doing stages. I didn't study in a classroom, but I did pass my final exams and earn my cooking diploma, my certificat."
Returning to the Americas, she cooked in hotels in Mexico City and San Diego, including the Four Seasons in Carlsbad. "Most of the time I've worked in fine-dining hotel restaurants. DMood is my first stand-alone restaurant," she says. "I like the liberty that a restaurant gives you. It's not as structured as a hotel establishment. You're more connected with the people you're serving than at a hotel, where you never get to see your customers, you don't get to greet them or to see the reactions when they eat your food. I like the liberty of shopping myself for the ingredients and making seasonal dishes. It's more fun.
"I've always been interested in Middle-Eastern food. It's a whole different culture than mine. I've read and learned about it and have had Middle-Eastern friends. Living in Europe where everyone is mixed, I got exposed to a lot of cuisines, including Middle Eastern. I didn't know much about Iranian food, but here Nadareh and Farzin taught me about it. The restaurant isn't purely Iranian, it's Iranian-fusion. I like trying different things, so as to not get bored."