Whether you already appreciate the splendid cross-cultural interplay characterizing Persian cuisine or don't know the difference between a barberry and a bamieh, the Green Onion is worth a visit. Its new location near Portland State University doesn't look like much on the outside: a drab craftsman house on a block of similar buildings in need of a Rejuvenation makeover. But soft lighting, tasteful linens, Persian carpets and woven cushions create an intimate, comfortable interior, while '50s jazz and abstract expressionist paintings in shades of deep red infuse the room with life.
Many of the items on the menu look like a misspelled version of what you'd find at a Middle Eastern restaurant; for instance, there's homous ($3.95), toboli ($5.95) and flafel ($4.95). An Arabic influence in Persian cuisine is not surprising, considering that political and cultural exchanges between the Arabs and Persians predate the seventh century. What's interesting is the way in which these dishes differ from their Middle Eastern namesakes. For example, the homous is quite bland, without much evidence of garlic or lemon. Sharp flavors are uncommon in Persian food, which, with the exception of dessert, tends to emphasize balance and subtlety. The Green Onion's homous, however, is insipid even by these standards. It works in conjunction with some of the more flavorful dishes, but doesn't seem designed to be eaten alone. The toboli, in contrast to tabbouleh, has very little wheat, consisting mainly of parsley and green onions. It isn't as tart or acidic as in many Middle Eastern restaurants, and it does a good job of livening up the homous. The wide, flat flafel patties are served crisp and hot, and are lighter and less filling than falafel.
Another point of affinity with Middle Eastern cuisine is the preponderance of quince and pomegranate in the menu's beverage section. We tried the "Quince and Lemon Drink" ($1.50), whose name tells only half the story. The other half is heaps of sugar with a splash of rosewater. The deep burgundy pomegranate juice ($2.50) is better: not overly sweet, with a slight tartness and an unfiltered texture that could not have come out of a can. As it turns out, the chef treks out to the Gorge to harvest wild pomegranates for the drink. This level of dedication manifests in service that is attentive, if a little controlling. For instance, a diner's freedom to choose between an accompanying soup, green salad or cucumber yogurt salad is sometimes expropriated by the server.
The Moghuls, who conquered India in the 16th century, traveled through Persia on their campaign from China, bringing their ideas, technology, art and recipes to the region. Their culinary influence can be detected in several of the Green Onion's dishes. For instance, the lemon chicken with barberry rice ($10.95), a grilled chicken breast pounded flat and marinated in lemon and turmeric, tastes distinctly tandoori-esque--albeit juicier and smokier than many tandoori offerings. Its accompanying rice is exceptionally tasty: Because the saffron (another likely Moghul contribution) is judiciously applied, the delicious sweet and sour dried barberries provide the dominant flavor. These berries, a staple of Persian cuisine, are not commonly found in either Arabic or Indian cooking; they come from a close relative of that diminutive purple hedge you see in parking-lot landscaping around town and taste like cranberries minus the bitterness.
One of my favorite entrees is the green herb and beef stew ($10.95), which looks less like a stew and more like the Indian specialty lamb saag. Fenugreek and cilantro reinforce the similarity, but kidney beans and mint yield a dish that defies easy categorization. The abstract paintings on the wall do a good job of capturing the experience of eating this imaginative combination.
Not every dish gives rise to a bout of imaginative reverie. The lamb shank with lima beans and dill weed rice ($11.95) was too watery to ignite a creative spark; the vegetables were somewhat overdone, and the meat had surrendered the last of its flavor to the pan hours ago.
Desserts at the Green Onion range from sweet to diabetic-coma-inducing. Try the respectable baklava ($2) if you want a simple, pleasing end to the meal. If, on the other hand, you want to see how much sweet you can handle, try the zoolbia ($2.25), a hard, crystallized candy that tastes like what you might eat for dessert if your main meal had been honey. The bamieh ($2.50), a moist yet crumbly cookie resembling a delicate gulab jamun, allows you to push the sweetness envelope without hurting yourself. The rich, concentrated Turkish coffee also works well to finish off a meal. I savored mine as I listened to the music of Miles Davis, a warm breeze on my face from the open windows, and a diverse mix of pungent spices receding in my memory.
636 SW Jackson St., 274-4294 11 am-9 pm Sunday- Thursday, 11 am-10 pm Friday, 5-10 pm Saturday. $
eggplant with garlic, flafel, lemon chicken with barberry rice, green herb and beef stew.