Taste of the Town

Pleasing Persian Dishes


     When major cities were defined by their downtowns, the “downtown restaurant,” such as Tadich Grill in San Francisco, was an important part of the urban identity. Oakland’s downtown, however, owes much of its vibe to the colorful districts—Uptown, Old Oakland, Chinatown, Jack London Square—that surround the city center. And the restaurants in those neighborhoods, as well as Temescal, Grand Lake, Rockridge, Piedmont Avenue and Glenview, contribute mightily to our city’s hip dining reputation.
     But Oakland does have an archetypal downtown restaurant: Faz.
     The sixth eponymous eatery opened by Iranian chef/entrepreneur Faz Poursohi since he opened his first Faz in San Francisco in 1984, Faz Oakland occupies a quintessential downtown location—in the southwest corner of the gleaming 1111 Broadway skyscraper. And rather than shooting for the trendy postmodern, industrial-chic, open-kitchen, cocktail-bar vibe currently overflowing in Oakland, Faz beckons with a reassuring, somewhat old-school but upscale tavern decor that places as much emphasis on the long bar and sun-room extension (available for private parties) as on the sedate booths-and-tables dining area.
     Indeed, on our two weekday dinner visits, we opted to eat at the bar (which includes several tall cocktail tables) not for the flat-screen TV (Oakland loves its A’s, Raiders, and Warriors), but because the dining area was virtually empty, and because we quickly learned that our bartender/server Nikyea was committed to keeping us conversationally engaged and well cared for.
     Faz’s fortunes largely hinge on clientele drawn from the Marriott Hotel across the street, plus the downtown office workers and executives who crave a classy enclave to which they can retreat for a business-lunch break. That business customer base is MIA on the weekends, so Faz opens its doors only Monday through Friday.
     Faz presents a comfortable setting in which to enjoy elevated interpretations of Eastern Mediterranean dishes for those of us who love street-corner falafel but will also pamper ourselves with a cocktail or a glass of wine along with our hummus, tabouleh and Middle Eastern pizza.
     Robin and I first encountered a Faz Poursohi menu many years ago at his Danville outpost. Neither the Persian-inspired menu nor the wine list seems to have changed all that much since then. That’s fine, because we found plenty of pleasing dishes (with more to explore later) on our Oakland visits. The cocktails we started with on our first visit—a Negroni and a margarita, both on the rocks (both $5.50 during happy hour)—didn’t knock us out. They were potent, but the bar, so to speak, has been set quite high for mixed drinks by the East Bay’s ubiquitous artisanal and locavore libations. But we were happy with the agreeable wines we switched to, MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noir and Black Ridge Vineyards Shiraz (both $7 by the glass), and we were impressed that Nikyea provided us with preview tastes and even topped us off after she poured a glass for someone else seated at the bar.
     During happy hour, complimentary snacks—house-made potato chips, spinach and feta puff-pastry cups and flatbread pizza slices—are set out at one end of the bar. After noshing on those with our drinks, Robin and I moved on to the roasted feta appetizer ($8), a large, warm square of cheese dusted with herbs and crisp garlic, encircled by three black olives and three cherry tomatoes on a large white plate. Nikyea brought us a complimentary tabouleh dip with pita triangles fresh and warm from the kitchen. We could make a habit of swinging by Faz during happy hour and filling up on starters, which also include fried calamari ($11) with a spicy harissa aioli, warm olives ($7) dressed with thyme, preserved lemon and pickled chilies, and a classic Mediterranean platter ($12) starring hummus and tabouleh.
     In fact, we were almost full when our entrees arrived. The fettuccini Marco Polo ($16), from the pasta menu, was an ample portion of flat noodles, tomatoes, spinach and slightly overcooked shrimp in a curry cream sauce. Comforting, satiating, but unremarkable. On the other hand, the soltani ($21), a combination of the barg (marinated lamb tenderloin) and rolled beef (with onions, spices, saffron) kabobs, was a festival of deliciously seasoned meats; two generous skewers alongside a big portion of fluffy saffron basmati rice. (Signature rice specialties—mixed with carrot, candied citrus and raisins; barberries; or dill and fava beans—are offered at $4.) We boxed up a good half of our main courses to take home.
     On our second visit, we went vegetarian, sidestepping the “Spit & Grill” section of the menu (roasted chicken, $16; pomegranate chicken, $17; braised lamb shank, $18), and contenting ourselves with a fine Faz salad ($8) of Romaine, cucumber, mint, red onion, feta and vinaigrette; a rather oily warm dip of eggplant puree (kashik o’bademjan, $8) spiked with onion, garlic and mint; and house-made ricotta ravioli ($13) that were hard around the edges, not softened by the copious creamy pesto. Once again we were too full to try any of the desserts: chocolate cake, buttermilk panna cotta, cheesecake
and baklava (all $8).
     Minor missteps indicated that the Faz kitchen might occasionally coast, but the high notes—the roasted feta, the tabouleh and the kabobs and the service—bespoke a confidence in vision and execution that comes from years of experience and success. The original SF Faz closed in 2004, and while the enterprise seems to thrive in suburban locations (Danville, Pleasanton and Sunnyvale), it
still makes a strong bid as a downtown Oakland oasis.

Faz. Mediterranean. 1111 Broadway, Oakland, 510-272-1111. Serves lunch and dinner Mon.–Fri. 11 a.m.–9 p.m. www.fazrestaurants.com/faz-oakland

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