After a spring and summer that seemed like one long stampede of high-end restaurant openings, it's nice to remember that Atlanta's true culinary treasures are often well-hidden and underexposed. If you're in need of an antidote (as I often am) to the expensive meals found in the gleaming towers along Peachtree, check out Falafel Café, hidden behind a Waffle House on Cobb Parkway in Marietta.
Falafel Café's endurance is a hotbed of contradictions. The impossible-to-locate location is only the beginning. What was once a campus take-out joint mainly patronized by Life University students is now a family restaurant serving hearty Persian cuisine. That change took place years ago, when current owner Reza Gharaat took over. But still, the restaurant was reminiscent of a poorly lit, slightly grubby dining hall.
That space still exists, but two years ago, Gharaat expanded, adding a swanky dining room with brocade-covered chairs, chandeliers and a large TV that inexplicably plays a constant rotation of fashion shows and random red-carpet moments. The newer space is hardly slick, and looks as though its main purpose is to hold wedding receptions, but it's a nice upgrade from the drab room adjacent to the kitchen.
Honestly though, I'd endure the decor of a Siberian prison cell to get my fork into some of Gharaat's food. But before I get to the good stuff, let's dispense with the most egregious of Falafel Café's contradictions: The falafel is no good. If you've ever made your own falafel at home from a boxed mix, these puck-shaped snacks will taste eerily familiar. Too crunchy on the exterior and too dry in the middle, they're edible but not particularly enjoyable.
My guess is that Gharaat keeps the name and the falafel to bring in the students, but in terms of cooking, the Lebanese food is an afterthought. The real joy is the Persian cuisine.
There may be no food on Earth as comforting as the food of Iran. Flavors are deep, complex and instantly soothing, like the stroke of a mother's hand on your clammy forehead. At Falafel Café this seems especially true – I love Persian food almost unilaterally, but here the stews seem thicker, the meat more tender, the flavors more intense.
Take the thick, tangy, rich kashk-o-bademjan appetizer – eggplant cooked down to its silky essence and topped with crispy shallots and cream of whey, and served with hot-off-the-griddle pita bread. If your main associations with eggplant are rooted in spongy or slimy experiences then you may not even recognize it here. The transformation into sticky, earthy-sweet goo is enough to make my obsession with the vegetable go another round.
The aash-e jow, a cream-of-barley soup, will be my first request the next time I'm sick or pregnant or hungover or depressed (hopefully not all four at once). The mellow backbone of barley supports the piquancy of fresh green herbs and embodies pure nourishment and comfort.
The kabobs revel in meaty simplicity – lamb in particular is startlingly tender, while enjoying all the crunchy benefits of charred edges. But the best reason to drive out here is the outrageously flavorful stews.
The thick, almost black combination of pomegranate and walnut swathes chunks of chicken in the fesenjan stew, imparting an enchantingly complex play of sweet against sour against bitter. Sweet wins out on the finish, but not cloyingly so, and not before the other flavors make an intriguing play for your affections, inviting you back in for another bite. I eat this stew and wake up dreaming about it the next morning.
Almost as captivating is the gormeh sabzi, a swampy stew made of pulverized parsley, cilantro and fenugreek, which tastes of freshly mowed grass, chlorophyll and all things green.
For food this exciting and exotic, you sometimes have to venture into unfriendly or intimidating territory, but not here: Gharaat and his staff are unfalteringly welcoming and helpful. There are fancier Persian restaurants in town, and places with food just as well-prepared in their own ways. But for the feel of home-cooked comfort, for depth and honesty and no-frills authenticity, Falafel Café wins my heart.
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