By G. Stassi. This review is dense, delicious, and detailed because this little, impressive restaurant truly delivers a wonderful and satisfying experience. For years, Fanoos has provided fresh and conscientiously prepared “zabihah halal” Persian comfort food, and the service has been consistent and courteous. So if you want to understand more about Persian food, what is “halal”, and what to order at one of the best Persian places in the greater Los Angeles area, than please read on…
One of the most impressive things about Fanoos is that it is impeccably clean. The first thing that they do when they get in at 10am, is wash the place down and I’m sure it was also washed down at the close of business the night before. You never sit down to a crumb-laden table, sticky seat, or smeared countertop. We had lunch for 14 women for my birthday and that was the first thing they noticed (or maybe the second thing after Omit).
Fanoos opened over four years ago and was highly recommended to me by my friend Mina, the Persian Goddess of Beauty. Mina can actually drive around a Mercedes with a license plate that says “GREAT SHAPE” and live up to it. So,I decided it’s time to “go persian” and maybe I’ll start to look like her? With great hope of looking like Mina, I entered Fanoos and began to peruse the menu.Even as a lover of languages, I have to admit that it was a bit intimidating to decipher phonetic Farsi. I had no idea what to order and this particular group I was with was pretty freaked out — total burger-eaters trying to be adventurous and regretting that they didn’t make me go to Islands or even Tandoori Grill at the mall food court. For some reason, Hindi doesn’t have that same “deer-in-the-headlights” effect on us. I don’t know why, but it doesn’t. We all know “dahl” and “naan” (or so we think) and we order it confidently with a starter of samosas and hope for the best. Also, the guy in the red turban and friendly smile puts us at ease – but that’s another review.
Now, for the past few months, I have had Omit (pronounced “omeet”) repeat the names of the dishes over and over to me — I stare at his lips trying to concentrate on them. I try to pronounce my favorite dishes but the only thing that seems to come out sounds more like “I’ll have an order of “achmadinejad” and some of that “ayatollah” please”. Omit seems to have a never ending supply of patience with me, my questions, or my adulteration of Farsi. I haven’t figured out why — just a good business man I guess. The customer is always right no matter how stupid she sounds.
The Amini Family, brothers Amir and Omit, run and own Fanoos. A “fanoos” is a latern, in case anyone was wondering. Their mother Firoozeh Amini is the head chef and creator of the family recipes. None of the recipes are written down. Firoozeh was taught by her family to cook and she has taught the kitchen at Fanoos– the recipes are handed down by hands-on experience in the family kitchen. As Omit explained it to me: it’s a dash of this, a bundle of that, a handful here, etc… Anyone who has been brought up in an Italian or Greek family knows exactly what I’m talking about. I really don’t believe he’s being evasive because he doesn’t want to give up his family’s secret recipes — I believe that they don’t exist on paper. Or do they? He is a bit of an enigma.
Amir Amini, the elder brother, worked for about six years learning the restaurant business at another Persian food establishment in the South Bay. They are originally from Tehran and his younger brother, Omit, joined him here in 1998. Together, they transformed a former sushi restaurant into this very humble, pristine and superb restaurant. The kitchen is very small and storage is at a premium, so the food is extremely fresh. The halal meat is delivered three times a week and they make frequent trips to a restaurant depot for their fresh produce. The small quantities that are purchased Omit says, “makes the job more difficult, but keeps everything fresh. Meat is delivered three times a week and everything that comes in, basically, goes out.” And, fresh means a more flavorful, healthful and delicious feasts. Some of the more specialized items that are not readily available in the United States, such as fenugreek and Iranian saffron, are shipped from Iran to Sadaf Imports which distributes Middle Eastern culinary products all over the world.
Now, out of that little kitchen comes beautiful things. Their kitchen is smoking hot with powerful burners with thousands of btu’s for the perfect Basmati rice, hearty soups and stews and their inferno of a kebab grill will melt the collagen in your lips and singe your Latisse-enhanced lashes. Kebabs are a very popular item with their eclectic clientele. Kebabs are served all over Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey, and Greece.
For the majority of Fanoos customers, the greatest priority is placed on the fact that all of their food is “zabihah halal”. They cater to the South Bay’s large population of Muslims and their specific dietary requirements. It is taken so seriously, that Omit provides the phone number of his meat supply company, A-Noohi, so that his customers can verify that the meat is “zabihah halal” before they will patronize his establishment.
The terms “halal” and “kosher” are two things that I thought I understood but wanted the specifics. So, of course, being an obsessive-compulsive, I like to make things more complicated. I proceeded to propound my tough global culinary questions upon Omit; he countered back that Fanoos is not only “halal” but “zabihah halal.” Go ponder that, missy! So I did. “Zabihah” is an Arabic term that translates into “sacrificial”. “How do you spell that? Say it again?,” I ask staring at those lips trying to discern the words again. The definition of “halal” is something that is permitted. It not only pertains to food, but all permitted activities referred to in the Q’aran — not just eating. Therefore, Fanoos is more than just “halal”, it’s “zabihah” so the food is “sacrificial and permitted”. (Halal meats are also more expensive.) Fanoos even grinds their own meat from A-Noohi — very impressive.
“Harem” on the other hand means something that is forbidden by the Q’aran. The most common examples of foods that are considered “harem” would be pork and alcohol. An establishment cannot call itself “zabihah halal” if they serve these “forbidden” things because according to Omit, the “permitted” foods could still come into contact with the “forbidden” foods, therefore, contaminating them and that wouldn’t be cool because they would no longer be “zabihah halal”. We’ll conquer “kosher” when we visit a kosher kitchen — not now — but it is based on a similar adherence to religious dietary rituals and requirements – so you’ll have to trust me.
Now, let’s get down to the food and let’s get something straight: Hummus is not Persian Cuisine. Yes, it is offered on the menu and yes, it is delicious and one of my favorite things to eat, but it’s traditionally Lebanese. When I asked about it, Omit just says that it’s not Persian but people expect it and so he provides it. Now, feeling rather pompous armed with this knowledge, I go out of my way not to order it, but my friend, Adriana, hedonistically indulges herself at every meal here in that Lebanese side dish. I mean no self-control with that girl when it comes to food and she stays slim — life is not fair. So, it’s good but not Persian — so don’t fool yourself and think you’re coloring outside the lines by ordering it because we know you buy it at Trader’s every week. You’re not fooling anyone about your so-called adventurous palette.
So, after sampling various dishes and bringing over 23 people of varied palettes who were blown away by the freshness, flavor and good service, I highly recommend that you order the following items when you visit Fanoos. So print out your cheat-sheet below so you don’t get overwhelmed by the menu and accidentally order up something that sounds like “salman rushdie” because that might not go over so well:
We always start with at least two or more of these starters before our main course:
Kashke Bademjan. Baked eggplant (bademjan) with sauteed mint, onions, garlic and kashk (dried whey) served with pita slices. Like hummus, pita is not Persian, but Persian bread is very hard to come by and replicate here because of the unique ovens are not widely available here. If you like baba ganoush, Kashke Bademjan will rock your world. This golden vegetarian dish is hearty, rich, roasty and extremely flavorful and can easily be eaten with or without the pita bread. It is topped with the most uniquely prepared carmelized onions and creamy kashk (whey). I’ve had plenty of camelized onions but these are by far, the best I’ve ever tasted.
Maust’ Khiar. Combination of yoghurt (maust’) and chopped cucumbers (khiar) flavored with dill (served with pita slices) but we like it to mingle with the Shirazi Salad. It can be described as a relative to tzaziki or raita, but this recipe is much more creamy and rich and the cucumbers are very crunchy and the dill is very fresh.
Shirazi Salad. Diced cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, parsley, lemon juice. The best way to describe this salad named after the Iranian city Shirazi, is a large dice or coursely chopped tabouli-like salad without the bulgar wheat. It’s very refreshing, has all the flavors of the region but doesn’t quite stick in your crop like tabouli. We like to eat it next to the Maust’ Khiar and take a little bit of each with each bite.
Ashe Reshteh. A soup of fresh herbs, noodles, beans, sauteed garlic, onion, mint, and dried whey or kashk. This vegetarian soup is packed with . nutrients and protein. It can very easily stand on it’s own as a meal. It is traditionally eaten when the fast is broken during Ramadan. Most people love it so much that they ask to take an extra order to go. It is topped with kashk (creamy whey) and Fanoos signature carmelized onions.
Fesenjan. This pomegranate-walnut stew is the crown-jewel of Fanoos and is served over saffron and basmati rice with or without chicken; tradiltionally, it is served with duck. Even being a vegetarian, I tried to talk Omit into preparing it with free-range, organic duck but he said no! because most people wouldn’t order it. The walnuts are ground to a paste with the tangy pomegranate molasses. The flavors are very complex; tangy and savory with a fruitiness that truly compliments poultry. We like to eat it with the Zereshk Polo (Saffron Basmati Rice with Barberries). For many of my American friends, the Fesenjen with Zereshk Polo reminded them of those wonderful comforting, qualities we often associate with autumnal feasts or Thanksgiving Dinner.
Zereshk Polo. Saffron Basmati rice with barberries and Fanoos onions. Oh my, this is the best rice in the world and we eat if for breakfast the next day. It is everything good: nutty, tangy, buttery, savory and sweet. Barberries are elogated brite red berries and because of their high acidity are rarely eaten raw. They are like a mini-cranberry. The berries are native throughout most of Europe and the Middle East and also are grown in New England. A number of my testers said that they would like to order this as a side dish for their holiday dinners.
Tadik (tadeek). Basamati rice from the bottom of the pan that has been made crispy. It is not always available because it is a phenomenon that occurs during the rice cooking process. It is the crispy crust of rice that forms at the bottom of the pan, then broken up, topped with stew and left to saturate for a few minutes. You just pick up these little sections and pop them into your mouth. It’s a savory sensation of flavor and texture! An interesting take on tadik that was explained to me from my Pakistani friend, who is a very talented cook, is that the food is served according to birth order with the eldest being served first and the youngest last. Well, guess who gets the bottom of the pan? Obviously, shorty does. So tadik is often referred to as being favored by children but an adult will gladly knock the cutest kid out of the way to get to it! Just ask Adriana’s daughter.
Hot Saffron tea with lime. The tea served at Fanoos is really nice to have with lunch. The tea is a house blend of Earl Grey and Iranian Black tea with cardamon. When I was served this fragrant black tea, with a bowl of sugar cubes and a slice of lime, I thought, “how cool — lime instead of lemon!” But when I asked Omit about this interesting choice of citrus by Iranians he said that he uses more limes so he doesn’t buy lemons. Very funny — the joke was on Miss Pretentious. I was thinking how exotic — but no — how pragmatic! He did say that one of his customers complains about the limes and is still waiting for the lemon for his tea but I don’t think that’s going to be happening soon.
Ghormeh Sabzi. Sauteed herbs with red beans served over saffron rice. This dish is generally served as a starter. The most interesting thing about this dish are the flavors that the Persian lime and imported fenugreek impart. It is tangy and herbaceous and the red beans are sweet and perfect partner for the saffron basmati rice. Fenugreek is native to Asia and Southern Europe and the greens are not generally available in US. The leaves are whole or ground, and used to make salads, curry powder, spice blends and teas. Fenugreek is highly perishable. It can’t be stored for more than six months because it is rich in volatile essential oils that give it a distinct flavor and aroma desired in Persian cooking.
So overall, Fanoos Persian Restaurant Grill is one of the very best Persian restaurants in the greater Los Angeles area. Our decision was based on the flavor and freshness of the dishes; the consensus of 23 very particular eaters and the high standards of the establishment. We were very happy to find that they offered both vegetarian and vegan delicious choices also. Yes, you can find fancier places, with romantic lighting and seductive belly dancers but what we really want to salivate over is the food! (but there’s always Omit!). Fanoos Persian Restaurant Grill, Rolling Hills Plaza, 25336 Crenshaw Blvd., Torrance, CA 90505, 310-530-4316, www.fanoosgrill.com