At any good Persian restaurant, it’s all about the rice. In an Iranian home, it may be even more important. There, the cook seeks to prepare the basmati grains so they form a crunchy crust on the bottom of the pot. Called tahdig, it’s Iran’s contribution to the world’s crispy rice pantheon that includes dishes like paella in Spain and nam khao in Thailand.
But it’s rare to see tahdig in a restaurant. At Divan in McLean, every dish comes with a mound of rice topped with a layer of crunch. “It’s a brand-new style of making the rice,” explains owner Tony Kowkabi. Chefs Vahab Shoar and Vicente Torres cook each portion of the basmati rice in nonstick pots with saffron, butter, and oil. After 15 to 18 minutes, they flip it over for a perfect individual tahdig that crackles with every bite.
Most Persian restaurants charge extra to top their rice with tangy barberries, dill and fava beans, or a mix of herbs. But Divan is not most Persian restaurants. “It costs a little bit more for us, but we want to make sure that customers get what they want,” says Kowkabi.
And that is exactly what happens at Divan at every opportunity. The restaurant is named for the 14th-century poet Hafez’s famous collection, a compendium of romantic poems that often reference wining and feasting. And a meal there is an event. From the moment Kowkabi and general manager David Shan, looking sharp in a bow tie, welcome diners into the restaurant, it’s clear that this is a carefully cultivated experience.
Divan is the first eatery opened by the restaurateur, a native of Tehran known for DC restaurants including Ristorante Piccolo and Catch 15, since he declared bankruptcy in 2017. It’s also his first Persian restaurant. Think of it as a homecoming for him and a return to fine dining done right for many guests made blasé by so-so service and food that fails to impress.
Kowkabi and Shan choose servers for their good attitudes and train them in old-fashioned mores (you will certainly not be packing up your own leftovers at Divan) as well as the long menu, full of pan-Persian dishes, many of which you won’t see elsewhere in the DMV.
Seated in a room dominated by browns and turquoises, diners can sip on drinks like the Earl Grey sidecar, which bolsters cognac with a tea-scented lavender-and-rose syrup. It’s best to start with the appetizer combo platter. At just $22, it includes a choice of three starters. Make sure to order one of the yogurt-based dips. The yogurt is made in-house and then hung in a bag to drain, allowing it to thicken to an ideal richness before beets, dried shallots, or cucumber and mint are added.
Mirza ghasemi, my favorite of all Persian dips, combines eggplant, tomato, and egg. Lengths of puffy barbari bread are topped with nigella seeds, sweety drop peppers, and olive oil, primed for dipping. In the mirza’s case, its flavors are addictively garlicky, with a compelling hint of smoke.
This is the kind of place where caviar service is an appetizer option, but for my money, the best starter is the koofteh tabrizi. The yielding meatball, which originated in the city of Tabriz, is stuffed with walnuts and sweet prunes. Its tender body, made of beef, rice, and split peas, is sunk into a tomato-saffron broth. It’s thinner than the tomato sauces in which I’ve eaten Persian meatballs before, but no less flavorful.
It’s important that diners who are new to Persian cuisine are aware that they should not anticipate an assault of spices. Quite the opposite — saffron and rosewater are two of the defining ingredients. It is an aromatic culinary tradition, not a spicy one. But when I think of the cuisine, the other most prominent flavor that comes to mind is pomegranate, usually applied in the form of sticky sweet-and-sour syrup.
A number of the dishes that I tried at Divan are treated with the complex flavor, often enhanced in its tartness by a dusting of sumac. Kebab torsh is beef fillet marinated for at least 48 hours to deeply imbue it with pomegranate and walnut. The grilled beef, paired with tahdig, a grilled tomato, and a shower of pomegranate arils, is a stunner. But next to two other dishes with similar profiles, it fades.
Fesenjan is a thick pomegranate-and-walnut stew that’s habit-forming over crispy rice. Vegetarians can order it plain, but meat eaters benefit from two options: tender duck breast, or a pair of chicken leg and thigh pieces cooked to fall-apart delicacy.
The showstopper is the mahi shekampoor. The opulent Northern Iranian fish at Divan is a whole deboned trout, dressed up in — you guessed it — pomegranate molasses. But it’s what’s inside that really counts, and fresh herbs, pistachios, and dried fruit all conspire to make each flaky bite of fish appealing in a novel way, a savory Everlasting Gobstopper.
Pomegranate does not figure into every success at Divan. My favorite example of a homey dish elevated for fine dining is the tahchin, a creamy-centered rice cake. It’s my most beloved Persian meal, and this is the first version I’ve discovered in the region. At Divan, the barberry-bedecked brick of crispy rice is accompanied by marinated chicken pieces with a side of the same broth that flavors the koofteh.
A Hafez-style repast, of course, would not be complete without dessert. Those classic ingredients, rosewater and saffron, define the lush housemade ice cream. For a few dollars extra, pair a hefty scoop with faloodeh, an even rosier shaved-ice-and-vermicelli treat that’s served drizzled with sour cherry syrup, a combination called makhloot. It means “mishmash” in Urdu. For something a little more refined, there is the French-spawned Persian take on affogato, called caffé glacé. Or try the sholeh zard, warm, saffron-yellow rice pudding sprinkled with cinnamon.
In an era when restaurants are struggling just to stay afloat, there is nary a hint of desperation about Divan. It is a bastion of staff that actually cares, serving food that diners will crave exploring further. As Hafez would advise, fill your cup and let the feasting begin!
See This: A pair of screens brings guests into the ruins of Persepolis while they sit at turquoise velvet-backed booths.
Eat This: Koofteh tabrizi, mahi shekampoor, makhloot
Open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday.
1313 Old Chain Bridge Rd., McLean, divanrestaurantva.com
★ Fair ★★ Good ★★★ Great ★★★★ Excellent ★★★★★ Superior