Maybe the fluffiest, butteriest rice in Sydney.
Two things every Persian holds dear to them, rice and meat. No Persian restaurant can ever call themselves traditional, authentic or even good if they don’t do both of those things exceptionally. Those restaurants are few and far between in Sydney. Auburn has two of the best, Darband and Vatan.
Depending on who you talk to in the Persian community you may get sent to Darband, they’ve got the better atmosphere and just edge out the competition on décor, simply because they have wooden floors and a few more paintings on the walls. They do a mean kebab and they serve their rice with a takeaway packet of butter, the same ones you see at hotel breakfasts, which is of course is used to make their already buttery rice, even butterier.
Vatan may look more austere but it competes on the same level quality wise, with both the fluffy rice and juicy meat criteria easily fulfilled. Where it beats Darband is the price, the range of options and the butter stakes.
Vatan specialises in a few simple things (a few simple things more than Dardand), charcoal grilled meats, stews and Persian rice dishes. The latter is where they really shine, literally. While Darband has a small peel-open butter pack to add to their rice, Vatan has an entire glob of the stuff that slowly melts into your rice mound until it’s disappeared, and your meal is utterly glistening.
There are two options to try this marvellously uncompromising attitude to rice improvement. One is called zereshk polo, that’s rice spiced with saffron and barberries (a slightly tart berry that grows in the Middle East and the surrounding area) and served with braised chicken tender enough to eat with a wooden spoon. In Iran it’s so revered that it’s commonly found at weddings and other similarly significant celebrations. The other option is baghali polo, a dish found in just about every home and restaurant in Iran. The rice in this recipe is littered with broad beans and dill and served with a lamb shank that’s impressively even more tender than the zereshk polo chicken. It’s so soft a simple wiggle of the bone will cause all the meat to cascade off the shank like an arctic shelf during a sudden heat wave.
That brings me to the other prized Persian comestible, meat. Other than the sterling examples already mentioned, the most classic Persian meat serving is the kebab. The skewered version rather than the warp. A good one will be slowly roasted over charcoals until it’s blackened only at the very edge, juicy in the middle and imbued with a smoky flavour. Whether it’s the oniony minced lamb, lemony saffron chicken or hunks of lamb backstrap, Vatan succeeds on all fronts. Of course, all those kebabs also come with rice, as do the stews here. In the end I find myself so confronted with rice and meat, it seems unavoidable leaving the restaurant without either wasting a mound of good food, or severely overeating – and that’s just the main order.
Every dish, even if you’ve just ordered a grilled eggplant dip (which you should order, it’s smoky and lathered in kashk, a drained yoghurt product), comes with a homemade tandoor-oven-baked flat bread the size of a frisbee. Then you also need to get sides, because rice and meat is hardly a balanced meal is it? Grilled eggplant is the most flavoursome of the lot but yoghurt dips and Shirazi salad (diced cucumber, tomato and onion tossed with red wine vinegar, olive oil and herbs) are good foils to the fattiness of the mains.
If you’re still able to operate like a rational human being, get some extra bread on the way. They’ve got takeaway packs near the exit for pittance.