As we finish an appetizer of crispy rice smothered in stew at Amoo’s Restaurant in McLean, Jason and Yeganeh Rezaian begin rhapsodizing about tahdig, the layer of crusty, almost chewy grains that sit at the bottom of every pot of perfectly cooked Persian rice. To hear Jason and Yegi talk is to see a glimpse of the Iranian heart: Tahdig is art. Tahdig is home. Tahdig is a sign of respect.
Tahdig is “never on the menu in a traditional restaurant, because they’re cooking [rice] in one big pot,” which creates only a limited amount of the crunchy grains, says Jason, who writes opinions for The Washington Post. “If they bring you some tahdig, you’re a preferred customer.”
Fortunately for you, anyone can order tahdig at Amoo’s. It’s right there on the “shareables” section of the menu, at $15 a pop, with the option of topping the rice with your choice of Persian stew. Of course, it’s not the kind of tahdig that you will find in an Iranian home. Nor is it the kind of tahdig that will make you gasp at the beauty of it. And it’s certainly not the kind of tahdig that Yegi makes with lavash flatbread, which looks like something you’d see in the display case at a pastry shop.
No, it’s restaurant tahdig, a bulk variation on the laborious one-pot, two-step process for cooking Persian rice until it produces both fluffy, individual grains and a crusty base that goes down like basmati taffy. Sebastian Oveysi, chef and co-owner at Amoo’s, cooks several large pots of rice daily, reserving the tahdig in pans, which he will refrigerate until service starts. Once lunch or dinner begins, Oveysi will place one or more pans in a low oven to warm the rice and keep it crispy, before serving a thin layer of tahdig on the bottom of a basic white plate and topping it with your choice of stew.
It’s a clever process for serving tahdig to the families and couples who pack the elegant, marble-accented dining room at Amoo’s. Oveysi’s tahdig provides a crackly contrast — call it backbone, if you will — to the otherwise luxurious stews that you can spoon over the rice, whether the mild eggplant-and-beef combo known as gheymeh bademjan or the dark-and-brooding fesenjan with its alternating waves of sweet and savory flavors.
But Oveysi’s tahdig is also an ephemeral thing, like the Franklin Barbecue of Persian cuisine. “Once we run out, we run out,” the chef says. “Most people who are familiar with tahdig understand why.”
As if you couldn’t tell by now, Amoo’s is not your typical Persian restaurant. It’s not a kebab factory in which you eat your flame-grilled meats under the harsh florescent lights of a counter-service shop. Amoo’s is a full-service operation with a more full-throated expression of Iranian cooking, from tahdigs and stews to plates that put a Persian spin on Westernized ingredients.
Plus, Amoo’s has perhaps the most inspiring backstory that I’ve heard in more than a decade of covering restaurants in the Washington area. Jason and his wife, Yegi, an Iranian-born journalist, first hinted at the family story behind Amoo’s, and then Oveysi laid it all out for me — but only on the condition that his parents’ names would not be used in print. The family still has concerns about the government back in Tehran.
Oveysi’s father was part of the Iranian Air Force under the Shah of Iran before the revolution in 1979. In the new Islamic Republic, the elder was arrested, imprisoned, tortured and scheduled for execution, but he managed to escape his captors while recovering from injuries at a prison hospital. As an Iranian Kurd, he fled to a Kurdish village in Turkey, Oveysi says, but to get there, his father had to swim across a kilometer-wide river — in his hospital gown.
Once in Turkey, the father arranged to have his family smuggled out of Iran, and then he moved the clan to the region that would become Iraqi Kurdistan. The family patriarch applied for asylum under a United Nations program, Oveysi says, and was eventually granted visas to the United States. In March 1994, the family landed in Northern Virginia, which would become their permanent home. The elder’s first job in America was as a delivery driver for Dunkin’ Donuts.
“My dad is my role model, is my hero,” Oveysi says. “Somebody who was a deputy general, somebody who told people what to do . . . comes here and drives f------ doughnuts to save his family. To me that is bigger than anything. For a man to sit on pride to save his family, I have so much respect for that.”
A good backstory, of course, doesn’t automatically make the food taste better, but it does hint at the passion that animates everything about Amoo’s, which is a family-run restaurant in the best sense of the term. What I mean is that several members of Oveysi’s brood contribute to the menu: Many of the kebabs, including the mouthwatering koobideh and succulent, saffron-tinted chicken, are based on his father’s recipes. (Whatever you do, make sure to order the sublime shirin polo rice with your kebabs.) His mom developed most of the stews, including the superb mahicheh, a fall-off-the-bone lamb shank in a garlic-tomato sauce enriched with meat juices.
Oveysi himself, a chef who kicked around New York and Miami, loves to stretch the limits of Iranian cooking. It might be his respectable kebab interpretation of Jamaican jerk chicken or his more successful fusion of Chilean sea bass and Persian flavors. The latter is a market-priced dish — I shelled out $37 for it — in which fork-tender fillets of sea bass are marinated at least 24 hours in fresh lime juice, saffron, garlic and olive oil before being skewered and grilled like a traditional Persian kebab. This is a dish that deserves songs penned in its honor.
Speaking of hybrids, Oveyski has created a Persian take on Argentine chimichurri sauce with a condiment that combines jalapeño, cilantro and mint. It’s an aggressive concoction, spicier than what’s often found on the Persian table, and it electrifies everything it touches. It may be the house-baked lavash (really, a pillowy cross between pita bread and lavash) or the paneer sabzi appetizer in which you mix-and-match herbs, vegetables and feta cheese in section of lavash. With or without the chimichurri, no two bites of paneer sabzi are the same.
The condiment strikes me as symbolic of Amoo’s: Both sauce and restaurant are not afraid to put an adrenaline-fueled twist on traditional Persian cooking.
6271 Old Dominion Dr., McLean, 703-448-3868, amoosrestaurant.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9:15 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Prices: Lunch: $6 to $16 for starters, soups and entrees. Dinner: $6 to $15 for shareable plates and soups; $12 to $30 for kebabs, rices and stews.