Have you ever had a favorite restaurant but for one reason or another stopped going there? Such was the case with the Olive Branch in La Crescenta. Perhaps it was the chipping exterior in need of a facelift that kept me away. Or the fact that I go to dozens of kebab places. But when a friend from Iran said it was her favorite Persian restaurant, I felt compelled to rediscover it. I've been back three times now. I can't get enough of their lunch special.
Sandwiches are fine. Their portability make them an obvious quick lunch choice. However I propose something revolutionary. Take 30 or 40 minutes out of your busy day for a warm, satisfying meal like the ones at Olive Branch. For $10.85 (plus tip) you'll be out the door with a belly full of salad, appetizer, warm pita, rice, healthy stew, and drink (I recommend hot Persian tea) as well as a mind calmed by confident service, linen tablecloths, damask-covered chairs, cantaloupe-colored walls, and large curtained windows framing Crescenta Valley mountains. It's a respite that revives.
I have two favorite stews. My choice depends on my mood. When I want comfort food, I order fensanjan, a dark, thick, sweet and tangy melange of grated walnuts and pomegranate. It's great spooned over the delicate basmati rice, some tinted yellow from saffron, or sopped up by torn pieces of fresh pita. Chunks of tender chicken only make it more gratifying.
When I'm in the mood for something unusual, I get the ghorme sabzi. It has a flavor like no other. First off, you get 10 times your RDA of chlorophyll-rich foods. The brothy stew is dark green from parsley, cilantro, green onions and more. The red kidney beans and beef chunks (or vegetarian tofu) add substance. What makes this dish special, though, is the dried lime. Or maybe dried lemon. Owner/chef Edik Mirzaian isn't sure which. Showing me the raw product, a 2-inch sphere of hardened, brown citrus, it most closely resembles a Key lime. Research tells me the citrus is salted then sun-dried, fermenting the inside slightly. When reconstituted with water and added to food, it imparts a nuanced sour-sweet-bitter funkiness that wakes up the back of your tongue and leaves you wanting more.
For the less adventurous, the zereshk polow is a good bet. A piping hot plate full of rice, grilled chicken and sour, chewy barberries, it's a study in hues of golden and crimson. The Exotic Rices cost $1.95 more. Also extra, but worth it, is the ash-e reshte, a green lentil soup with tiny bits of chopped spinach and cilantro holding kidney and garbanzo beans as well as long, thin noodles. A swirl of sour cream-like lebhni and a topping of crisp-fried onions seal the deal. They tell me it's highly nutritious.
Each lunch special comes with a palate-cleansing green salad and an appetizer. If you don't specify, they bring their delicious, thick, creamy yogurt with cucumbers and pita. But know that you can also choose from yogurt with garlic or shallots, chunky hummos, smoky baba ghanouj or the Armenian eggplant dip, igra. Service by the gracious Aida is speedy but lingering after lunch is also acceptable, and judging by the soft conversations over empty plates around the restaurant, even encouraged.
Revisit the Olive Branch. In business for 18 years, it was one of the first Middle Eastern restaurants in town. It's still one of the best.
Where: 3658 Foothill Blvd., La Crescenta
When: Open daily 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. (10 p.m. on weekends); Lunch specials Monday to Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Prices: Lunch special $9.95; Dinner entrees $11.95 to $17.95
More info: (818) 248-9876, ILoveOliveBranch.com
LISA DUPUY has reviewed over 200 area restaurants. She welcomes comments at LDupuy@aol.com.