Daryoush is one of the best Persian restaurants in Berkeley

It’s not often that the star of a dinner party is an appetizer. But at casual Persian restaurant Daryoush in Berkeley, it’s the kashk-e-bademjan ($7.95), an eggplant dip, that should be advertised prominently on a marquee.

It exists somewhere between hearty home cooking and subtlety – the kind of food where its imperfections, like an oily halo or burnt mint, only add to the experience. The first sample is a rich surprise that almost has a delayed reaction in your brain, and before you know it, you’re wiping down the bowl with lavash.

It has a similar consistency to baba ganoush, topped with golden onions, mint and kashk, a whey paste made into porridge. This last ingredient is the secret touch: it thickens the long-simmering eggplant mixture and adds umami and flavor. Once set, the eggplant is topped with deeply caramelized translucent onion petals, almost blackened mint leaves and a final zigzag of kashk. The onions enhance the sweetness of the eggplant, and that final shake of kashk makes the dip deliciously creamy.

It turns out that Berkeley’s scenic restaurant scene includes a small center for Persian cuisine. Within a 3 km radius, there are three places to find credible Persian food: Daryoush, Alborz and Middle East Market. Daryoush is where I go when I miss the flavors of Tehrangeles, the Little Persia neighborhood in Los Angeles.

Plate of lamb kebab from Daryoush to Berkeley

Cesar Hernandez/The Chronicle

Daryoush won me over with the way it captures the spirit of a home-cooked meal and makes it financially accessible to students and locals without sacrificing quality. The restaurant, which opened its doors a few years ago, has been so successful that it plans to expand to San Francisco.

California is home to the largest population of Persians outside of Iran. In 2015, the census estimated that around 50,000 people of Iranian descent resided in the Bay Area – the actual Persian population is likely higher, since census data is based on Iranian descent, not ethnicity. Persian ethnicity. Although there are many Persian restaurants in the Bay Area, they still make up a small minority of restaurants overall.

Located across from the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive on Center Street in downtown Berkeley, the restaurant’s interior is cozy, with inflatable booths and walls decorated with stone carvings. The place is medium in size but fills up in a heartbeat with people who have been waiting on the sidewalk dreaming of koobideh skewers. In the partially open kitchen, you can watch the cooks twist the handles of the skewers to ensure that all the proteins are cooked evenly. Service is generally pleasant, sometimes a little slow, and owner Daryoush Ermagan takes orders and provides food information.

The koobideh combo plate is one of the most popular options at Persian restaurant Daryoush in Berkeley.

The koobideh combo plate is one of the most popular options at Persian restaurant Daryoush in Berkeley.

Cesar Hernandez/The Chronicle

Most often ordered at Daryoush: the kebab plates, which come with basmati rice and a burnt tomato. The koobideh combo ($15.95) — a ground beef skewer and a ground chicken skewer — offers a taste of the tenderness of charred Persian skewers. For this style, cooks toss ground meat with spices and drained grated onion, which helps keep it from sticking to the skewer.

Koobideh are also available in vegan forms, which replace beef and chicken with Impossible Meat. You can order both as a combo ($20.95). Soy-based Chicken Impossible is the same protein used in the company’s chicken nuggets. Daryoush orders it without the breading and seasons it in-house. Vegan skewers have a smoother mouthfeel than meat versions; the spice and texture reminds me warmly of Thanksgiving stuffing.

The most satisfying of the skewers is the chicken barg ($18.95), plump breast meat tenderized with yogurt and lime to ensure juiciness. Of course, there’s also lamb chops ($29.95), which come four to a plate and are tinged a warm yellow after being brushed with a saffron-infused sauce. I recommend replacing the rice with baghali polo ($3.50), which adds freshness in the form of dill and bean threads.

Khoresht bodemjan (lamb shank) from Daryoush in Berkeley.

Khoresht bodemjan (lamb shank) from Daryoush in Berkeley.

Cesar Hernandez/The Chronicle

But the kebab plates are not the only specialties of the restaurant. Khoresht bodemjan ($18.95), a lamb shank braised in a tender glory with eggplant and tomatoes, is among the beefiest options. The melting flesh slides off the bone with remarkable ease and sits in a velvety, sweet sauce that virtually eliminates all traces of gaminess.

Some things on the menu produced less appealing results. The filet mignon ($24.95) was well seasoned, but ultimately was just a thin flat cut of beef, pale in comparison to the well-executed chicken breast. The meat stew khoresht fesenjoon ($17.95), with its thick, brown sauce made with walnuts and pomegranate molasses, lacks balance compared to other versions I’ve had. I found it a bit like a chile en nogada, a pepper stuffed with ground beef covered in a walnut sauce and topped with pomegranate seeds. I respect the dish but find its nutty sweetness too awkward for repeated enjoyment. The staff will warn you that it is sweet before ordering.

Perhaps due to its proximity to UC Berkeley, Daryoush is open all day. See students face-to-face in their books, only taking to the air for bites from a skewer or spoonfuls of aash-e-reshteh ($6.95) – a slightly bitter herbal stew with beans, noodles and kashk – is common. If you are coming with a large party, consider making a reservation.

The restaurant accommodates students admirably with discounted lunch specials, most under $15. That doesn’t include expensive cuts like lamb chops or steak, but each plate comes with fluffy rice and a drink. I imagine it won’t make cramming for an exam any easier, but it will definitely be tastier.

2144 Center Street, Berkeley. 510-629-2144
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
Accessibility: Wheelchair accessible.
Sound level: Light to moderate.
Meal for two without drinks: $50-$60.
What to order: Combo koobideh ($15.95), chicken barg ($18.95), khoresht bodemjan ($18.95)
Meatless options: Kashk-e-bademjan ($7.95), aash-e-reshteh ($6.95 a cup), salad-e-shirazi ($7.95), baghali polo ($7.95) , vegan koobideh combo ($20.95), hot tea ($2.50), ice cream ($6.95).
Beverages: Beer, wine and tea.
Best practices: Order a koobideh combo, kashk-e-bademjan, hot tea and ice cream. Book a reservation for larger parties.

Cesar Hernandez is the associate food critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @cesarischafa

Richard Dement

The author Richard Dement