If you’ve ever eaten kebab or koobideh at a Persian restaurant, you’ve had chelo. That’s the proper name for the steamed basmati rice on which your grilled meat rests, but it’s more than just rice. You can’t make chelo by throwing the grains in a rice cooker and walking away.
When done right, chelo takes more effort to prepare than the meat. You must first soak the rice in salted water for a couple of hours, then drain it. Next, the rice is briefly boiled to tenderize the outer part of the grain while keeping the core firm. The pot is then drained of the water, and the rice gets mixed with yogurt, butter and, sometimes, egg. The mixture is gently steamed until fluffy. If all the steps are performed correctly, it’s a testament to how paying attention to the details can transform simple ingredients into something extraordinary.
You can experience properly made chelo when you order any of the grilled-meat plates at Woodfire Kabob in Laguna Hills. Every permutation of grilled protein—be it koobideh, kebab or barg—comes with ridiculous amounts of this rice, each pile topped with a yellow streak of saffron-stained grains.
When you take a spoon to it, you can see how well Woodfire Kabob’s chelo is made. There’s not a single clump to be found, with each basmati grain distinctly independent from the next. And when you chew it, you detect a subtle richness and slight tang from the butter and yogurt. But most of all, the basmati is so light and fragrant it feels as though you’re eating something made of air rather than carbohydrates.
But the rice is just half of the experience. It is, after all, meant to be a canvas on which the meat and grilled vegetables flourish. The most popular protein to order is the koobideh, seasoned ground beef hand-packed around a flat metal sword. The meat is roasted over an open flame until browned and freckled with char. And at Woodfire Kabob, the koobidehs are the girthiest in the county. A typical serving comes in two foot-long lengths. If you dangled both upright and end-to-end, it would stand as tall as Verne Troyer.
Only the lightest pressure of your fork is required to cut into the koobideh; it’s so soft it melts. The chicken version—tinted orange from turmeric and saffron—weeps juice when you bite into it. But it’s when you smoosh the molten roasted tomatoes to make an impromptu rice-moistening sauce and squeeze lime over the char-kissed meat, singed onion and blackened green pepper that you begin to grasp how these basic ingredients result in something miraculous with just the right application of fire.
This is not to say the restaurant rests on the laurels of its grill. The owners are the same seasoned cooks who previously operated Heidar Baba, the Persian counter at the shuttered Ansar Gallery in Tustin. Now working inside the opulently furnished dining room of what used to be the Laguna Hills Mall’s Elephant Bar, they imported all their old specialties, including the classic walnut-and-pomegranate chicken stew called fesenjoon. Also offered are different permutations of polo, complex recipes of basmati rice cooked with lentils, barberries, dill or sour cherries.
But even the appetizers verge on the elaborate. If you’re lucky, the kitchen won’t have run out of the “Tadig 1/2 and 1/2,” crispy rice served with gheimeh (a stew of yellow split peas, tomato sauce, dried lemon and beef) and ghormeh sabzi (vegetables cooked with red kidney beans and steak). If the tadig is unavailable, the hummus is a great consolation prize: it’s velvety smooth and embellished with olive oil. And the soup called ashe reshteh—full of beans, noodles and crispy fried onions, with a finishing swirl of the yogurt called kashk—is pure comfort food, a kind of Middle Eastern cure-all for colds and cold weather.
Woodfire Kabob may also be the only Persian restaurant in Orange County that offers an intricately composed noon panir sabzi plate for free. The dish—which translates to “bread cheese herbs” and is something that’s eaten for breakfast in Iran—comes out as soon as you sit down. It includes a basket of lavash from which you build little wraps, picking what you want from the arrangement of feta-cheese cubes, cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, radishes, green onions, walnuts, butter, pickled peppers and two herbs (mint and lemon basil).
The meticulous care taken in preparing this complimentary appetizer—which no customer is expecting to get for free until they do—is proof that the same attention to detail the owners employ to create the perfect batch of chelo extends to everything, even the stuff they give away.
Woodfire Kabob, 24155 Laguna Hills Mall, Ste. 1055, Laguna Hills, (949) 220-0000; woodfirekabob.com. Open Mon.-Thurs., 11 a.m.- 9:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sun., 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Entrées, $14.99-$28.99. No alcohol.
Before becoming an award-winning restaurant critic for OC Weekly in 2007, Edwin Goei went by the alias “elmomonster” on his blog Monster Munching, in which he once wrote a whole review in haiku.