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Khalaf opened the market side of his business last March and then the café seven months later. A couple of months ago, he created a Moorish-style door between the two businesses, which has helped sales enormously, he says: "People like to shop before, during and after dining."
I'm not that kind of dining patron. I prefer to focus exclusively on eating when I'm sitting at a table — any table. Khalaf makes that easy at Shahrazad because the dishes are presented so attractively. Who would want to look at anything else?
Khalaf is particularly proud of the shiny, segmented steel platters that he found in Chicago and uses for his appetizer combo. The menu lists six items on the platter, including the predictable baba ghanoush, hummus, stuffed grape leaves and falafel. But I've ordered this starter three times now, and there have never been the same six items on that tray. Variety is the spice of life, I guess. But for some, the spice of life is still inexplicably cilantro, so I've learned to ask nicely for falafel instead of the fragrant cilantro-fried potatoes. (A better bet is to pay a slight upcharge and get them both; the potatoes are worth a couple of bites.) The fried chickpea patties are a shade too crispy, but that lets them stand up to tahini sauce, red chili paste and creamy tsatsiki if you fold all of those ingredients into the soft pita that comes with the combo.
The starter selection is tasty and diverse enough to create a solid, satisfying meal for vegetarians (the list includes vegetable samosas and a great fava-bean dip). That's good, because the entrée choices tend to be meaty (all of the flesh is halal): gyro and kifta sandwiches, beef or chicken shawarma, marinated lamb chops (divine) and a good array of grilled kebabs (beef, lamb, kifta, chicken or shrimp).
When Khalaf opened his restaurant, he thought he would sell a lot of seafood — this is Johnson County, after all. But he has dropped salmon, scallops and a seafood platter from the menu. "No one was ordering seafood," he says. "My clientele is either vegetarian or they want beef and lamb."
I usually want both. The cumin-scented lentil soup is wonderful, and I've made a meal out of the fatouch salad (a jumble of chopped crisp cucumbers, radishes, green peppers, tomatoes, red cabbage and bits of deep-fried pita) eaten with a side of soft pita and Shahrazad's silky hummus.
For customers who want to feel as if they're dining in the court of King Shahryar, Khalaf has introduced big, round platters that he piles with rice and either the kebab combo or a duo of lamb chops and grilled quail. I've always thought that the quail requires a lot of work for very little meat, but Carol Ann found Khalaf's bird delectable. The petite chops, which Khalaf marinates in salt, pepper, garlic and olive oil, were extraordinary — as good as those he used to prepare at the Athena, and maybe even better. It's a little anticlimactic to have to eat such outstanding chops with pop or tea, but Khalaf says he hasn't had any complaints.
"Most people know, even before they step in the door, that I don't serve alcohol," he told me one night with a shrug. "They get used to it."
Traditional Persian desserts are on the menu — baklava, rice pudding, kunafa — but on each of my visits, I ran over to the market side and bought a handful of imported British candy bars. Sometimes, after an exotic meal, nothing sounds better than a Yorkie bar. The wrapper reads: "They're not for girls." Neither was Shahryar, but even he might have visited this Shahrazad for a few extra nights.