At the heart of every meal is warm sangak, a sesame-encrusted flatbread fresh out of the restaurant's huge oven.Strangers chatting in the fast-moving line outside Asal Bakery & Kabob are all jonesing for a taste of the same thing: warm sangak, a floppy chewy yard-long sesame-encrusted flatbread pulled from the fiery depths of a floor-to-ceiling oven whose constant muted roar dominates the Woodland Hills Persian cafe and bakery.
Whether soaked with kebab juices at dinner or slathered with cultured cream and honey for breakfast, the lightly singed sourdough breads, slightly puffy with steam, serve as the heart of every meal here (sangak is to Iranians what baguettes are to the French). It sounds traditional, but Asal is also riding the new culinary wave that unites disappearing kitchen crafts (like butchering or making butter, pickles or jams) with au courant tastes.
Daily soups are strictly vegetarian and often finished with kashk, creamy house-made yogurt whey swirled into a fun design. Simple grills arrive with West Hollywood-style panache accompanied with baby lettuce salad lightly filmed with a bright tart house dressing. And in the gleaming cases, the fancy, not-too-sweet Europeanesque cookies based on sweet butter forgo the often-used Persian rosewater flavoring.
One of the waitresses, sporting kelly green high-tops, lets on that her dad, Asal co-owner Reza Abdollahi, once owned a flour mill back in Iran. He's a man who knows his grains and flours, and his expertise may be why his young bakery's growing legions of customers willingly take a number and line up to wait for their bread order. Wrapped in huge sheets of butcher paper — never plastic — this bread bests the good but thicker, softer sangak sold in Persian markets.
In Asal's small dining room, orange Lucite tables and streamlined banquets face the monstrous oven with its Frank Gehry-style undulating stainless steel façade. Two bakers provide an action-packed show that beats anything on "Top Chef." One pulls a gooey blob of dough from a commercial mixer bowl, plops it onto a huge sesame-seed coated paddle, then pats and stretches it into a thin sheet. The dough flies into midair momentarily as he flips it through a narrow portal onto the rotating cast-iron plate inside the oven. Always at the ready, the second baker checks the bread's progress, removing it when it's done or pushing it back into the oven while simultaneously monitoring and adjusting the oven's heat.
Outside, embedded in the restaurant's facade, a swath of smooth oval river pebbles is more than mere décor. It's symbolic of this ancient dough stuff's beginnings when nomadic tribes, and later the Persian army, would cook their dough over a bed of hot pebbles. The oven's dimpled iron bed replicates the technique creating sangak's addictive uneven texture.
This kitchen pays exquisite attention to the deceptively simple kebab: Meat quality, seasoning balance and time spent on the grill show disciplined precision. Saffron-kissed marinated whole game hen comes out moist and crisp. Koobideh, a sausage-shaped length of onion and garlic-infused ground beef, bests the greatest hot dog while the lightly marinated boneless chicken or salmon wrapped in swaths of sangak make celestial Persian sliders.
Ash reshteh, the hearty three-bean and lentil soup flecked with masses of green herbs, has backnotes of tartness and a topping of minty oil swirled with a kashk garnish. Sure, it's comfort food, but it also reveals the unappreciated sophistication of Iran's cooking.
For pre-kebab dipping, you can order hummus and the shallot-laced creamy yogurt, mast-o-musir. And few morning meals can improve on sangak dipped into softly fried eggs or an omelet. Weekends bring kaleh pacheh, or head-and-foot soup. The rich garlic-laced broth is crowded with tongue, brains, cheek, shank and chewy tendon.
Uncharacteristically absent at Asal are those vast heaps of basmati rice, the centerpiece of chelo and polo kebab plates, that comprise the mainstay of more formal Persian meals. Instead, Asal offers its own take, one that turns an ancient craft into a quick meal that now seems fresh and new.
By Linda Burum, Special to the Los Angeles Time January 13, 2011