This nouvelle Persian cuisine is a big win for Orange County – Orange County Register

Like trying to push a square peg through a round hole, I scrape my plastic spoon around the perpendicular edge of the cardboard bowl, furiously trying to corral the last slurp of green-plum broth and a final nub of koofteh studded with pistachios, sunflower seeds and sour cherries. I don’t want to waste a single bite of this meatball, a single drop of this uniquely aromatic broth. It’s too good. I put down the plastic spoon, bring the bowl to my lips and jolt my head back. I’ve never had Persian food like this in Orange County, and I’m a little surprised at the speed and veracity with which I’ve just devoured this dish. 

To be fair, Orange County has no shortage of Persian food, but it’s all the same. Until this. Chef Afrand Nikoukar’s cooking at Bezan Berim is completely, utterly different. He calls it “nouvelle Persian.” It is rooted in tradition, and the flavors feel familiar, but I’ve never tasted anything like it before. He serves only four dishes a night.

And by “a night,” I mean roughly once a month.

Bezan Berim is a popup that doesn’t yet have a permanent address. For now, Nikoukar sets up the occasional residency at Semi Tropic Wines, a charming natural-wine boutique and bar on Costa Mesa’s Westside. The chef previously worked at TLT Food in Irvine, the brick-and-mortar spinoff of The Lime Truck, which had a cult-like following. Before that, he cooked for awhile at Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc in Yountville.

As I dislodge the paper bowl from my lips and coolly place it back on the table, I glance around to see if anybody noticed. But what I now notice is that the diners at another table nearby are eating the same incredible meatball, only theirs is served in a sturdy terracotta crock. And they’ve got real spoons. Their apparent VIP status sends a rush of envy through my veins. I loathe single-use plastics and paper dishes in restaurants, but there’s evidently not enough of the good stuff to go around here. Everything is first-come, first-served. And if you show up late, you get the disposables.

I first heard about Bezan Berim on Instagram, where a picture of carrots caught my attention. I anticipated a crowd, so my partner and I arrived at Semi Tropic 20 minutes before the scheduled start time. That wasn’t nearly enough buffer. The place was already swarmed. Every table on the wraparound patio, roughly 30 seats, was already taken, a line of customers snaking out the front door as everyone jostled to place their orders for food. The indoor dining room, too, was already fully occupied but for one undersized cocktail table that had just been abandoned. We elbowed our way through the crowd and swooped in. Now we wait. 

We drink half a bottle of rosé from Stagiaire, an organic winery in the Santa Cruz mountains, before the first dish arrives. It’s those carrots I’d seen online. The chef blanches the roots first in carrot juice before roasting, then he serves the heavily charred spears atop an artful splotch of clotted cream and decorates the plate with tempura-battered carrot tops and pine nuts. This is very sophisticated food, even if the actual service of it isn’t.

Next comes that meatball. Then another paper bowl, this one filled with rice, except it’s not just rice. It’s a modern riff on morasa polo. It looks like granola, a colorful kaleidoscope of kumquats, orange peel, white raisins, barberries, pistachios and almonds tossed with basmati. Wonderfully textural, it tastes both sweet and savory, of brown butter and fruit. My plastic spoon takes on a mind of its own, moving rapidly between the bowl and my mouth, my arm and hand along for the ride. The bowl empties in a flash.

As delicious as the meatball, the carrots and the rice all are, the eggplant dip is even better. It’s a thoroughly modern twist on kashke bademjan. The eggplants are poached in allium oil with saffron and turmeric, then layered together with fermented sheep whey, ground beef, burnt mint, crispy onions and walnuts. Resting atop the bowl is a roasted marrow bone decorated with garlic blossoms. The dip alone is great. But when drizzled with the hot, almost-liquid marrow, it is absolutely incredible. 

Bezan Berim

Where: Occasionally at Semi Tropic Wines, 816 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa

When: Roughly once a month

Cost: $12 – $14 per dish


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