When Javad Naghavi opened Noon-O-Kabab, a small Persian restaurant in Albany Park, the change in lifestyle from his former career running a Persian rug gallery gave him a bit of a shock. "It was a lazy business," he says. "I went from working six-hour days to sixteen-hour days here, and now I come home with onions and garlic on my clothes." But he's not complaining. Three years later, he loves the restaurant and takes the work quite seriously. "Persian food is very sensitive and time-consuming," says Naghavi, to counter the notion that a cuisine without complicated sauces must be rudimentary. "We focus on marinades, not sauces, and make everything to order--we don't even own a freezer."
His father, Amin, and sister, Parvin, are co-owners--Parvin runs the service end of the restaurant while Amin and his son tend to the food. Javad monitors every plate that leaves the kitchen. He takes a holistic approach to the business, from the cooks--"First, I train them to give me the best they have to offer, then I teach them about the food"--to the cuisine. "Whatever I do, I have no choice but to do my best--not because I decide to, but because it is how I am," he says.
Inside the kitchen there are dozens of skewers threaded with ground beef, lamb, and chicken (all meat is ground in-house), the assemblages so uniform they look machine made. Lining up the meat on the two-foot-long flat metal skewers is an exacting process, Naghavi says. Noon-O-Kabab's kitchen goes through 40 to 50 pounds of kabobs daily and up to 110 pounds on the weekends.
The koubideh skewers, made of seasoned ground beef and lamb, get their flavor from a marinade made from "ingredients that your body needs"--salt, pepper, and onion. "There's a reason for this," Naghavi says. "The onion is familiar with the meat, so it's easy to digest and you never feel as full as you would if you ate, say, a quarter-pounder." One of his regular customers, who usually doesn't eat meat, swears that the koubideh is the only meat that doesn't wreak havoc on his system.
The chenjeh, a rib eye kabob, has a similar marinade with an added pinch of Iranian saffron, which compares favorably to the best Spanish saffron, although the threads are shorter and it's tough to get in the U.S. Like Spanish saffron, it's pricey--almost $400 a pound, although it's usually sold by the ounce at $50 or so. Naghavi uses it sparingly but still goes through close to four pounds a year. In Iran the stigma of the Crocus sativus, the thread that's dried for the spice, is thought to have medicinal qualities. "Saffron is used for people who get depressed," says Naghavi. "We make tea out of it and it makes people happy and laugh a lot. That's why there's always a lot of laughter in the restaurant."
The all-white-meat chicken kabobs are made with another marinade, but Naghavi won't share the recipe. "This one I cannot tell you about. I'm the only one who makes it this way." But he will share the secrets of his cooking technique. There's a red-hot 24-inch grill on one side of the kitchen and the key is to never let the meat touch it directly. Instead, two triangular stainless rests sit on either end of the grill, elevating the kabobs about two inches off the surface. Before he cooks them, he whacks the meat rhythmically with the blunt end of his chef's knife, not to tenderize them, but to break the surface so a tough outer skin doesn't form.
Rice is integral to the cuisine--the Naghavis make from eight to ten 20-pound batches a day. In the kitchen two huge pots of nutty, aromatic basmati rice rest on two freestanding burners. The rice soaks in salted boiling water for 30 minutes, then it's strained to remove excess starch and cooked for eight minutes in a fresh pot of boiling water. It's then strained again and replaced on the burner to finish steaming over low heat.
Naghavi's adamantly opposed to the Persian custom of adding dill to the rice. "It's authentic but it doesn't go with meat--the flavors don't work together," he says. Instead, he makes batches of saffron for rice by grinding a pinch of dried saffron threads and a teaspoon of sugar in a spice mill, then adding the mixture to a pitcher of boiling water to extract the color. He drizzles this onto a small bowl of rice to create a brilliant reddish orange stain.
The eggplant plate, one of several hearty vegetarian dishes, is a stew of eggplant, tomatoes, saffron, and sauteed--almost caramelized--onions. The baby eggplant is deep-fried then strained in a perforated pan to remove the excess oil. It's then combined with the other ingredients and braised in a 450-degree oven for almost an hour, after which it's cooled overnight to marry the flavors.
The Naghavis make their yogurt in-house. It's used for the creamy, delicious kashkeh e bademjan, an appetizer of pureed eggplant, onion, garlic, and mint. They also use it in the simple and refreshing yogurt salad--a spot of yogurt combined with fresh cucumbers and mint.
In the next few months the Naghavis plan to expand into the space one door south, installing a larger kitchen and doubling the seating area. They've been promised the space for months and hope the renovations will be done by early summer.
Noon-O-Kabab is at 4661 N. Kedzie, 773-279-8899. --Laura Levy Shatkin
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.