Since June he's been running a restaurant, and it may be the hardest thing he's done yet. But as the chef/owner of Shezan, a home-style Pakistani-North Indian restaurant in Mountain View, Syed says, "This was the only thing left in my dream."
Syed came to the United States to study, and found himself hungry for the foods of home. He kept calling his mother in Pakistan for help. While earning his master's degree in business administration, he says, "I learned quite a bit of cooking."
Shezan is pronounced SHEE-zan (not sheh-ZAN, and definitely not sheh-ZAM, a common error). It means "beautiful," and reminds Syed of a restaurant from his childhood in Pakistan. He and his wife, Samina, have reformatted the Castro Street spot that housed Sue's Indian Cuisine and then Godavari. They removed the booths and put in cheery white chandeliers and warm wooden floors. Acoustics have been troublesome in the past, but the owners have worked to address the issue.
Jamshed offers some of his mother's recipes, and lots of his own. He refined his recipes when helping a friend open a restaurant and train the chef, and in catering he has done from home. Samina is in charge of the desserts, also all made in-house.
"Our spices come in through the side," is how Jamshed Syed describes his Pakistani tradition. You should be able to close your eyes and know that you're eating cauliflower, okra or eggplant, rather than being overwhelmed by spices. He variously chops, crushes or juliennes fresh ginger to achieve the correct effect.
The meats are halal, in keeping with Muslim practice. Beef shanks are stewed to tender stringiness in nehari ($9.50), a citrus-inflected broth dotted with cardamom pods and ginger. Also excellent, mutton do-piazza ($9) features caramelized goat meat, onions and tamarind.
On the richer side, chicken tikka masala ($9) is bathed in a cream and tomato curry.
Unlike most everything else on the menu, the appetizers lean heavily on frying. Crispy and hot, vegetable samosas ($5) are stuffed with potatoes, cilantro and peas and dappled in cumin seeds.
Pakistan's staple grain is wheat, and it is a predominantly bread-eating country. Shezan's clay oven produces a lovely plain naan ($1.50) as well as naan stuffed with ground beef ($3.50) and garnished with garlic ($2). Two other breads are fried. The pan-fried aloo paratha ($3) adds potato and cilantro to the mix.
In the plain basmati rice ($2), also good for sopping up sauces, each grain maintains its integrity.
The signature rice dish is Jamshed's mother's bone-in chicken biryani ($9), mildly but plentifully flavored with 11 herbs and spices, wafting in saffron.
Shezan's weekday lunch buffet ($9.99) is a very good deal, including chai tea, luscious rice pudding and gulab jamun, the addictive deep-fried dough balls drizzled in syrup. Even the mango ice cream is house-made. The yogurt drinks called lassi also get high marks. A customer reportedly liked Shezan's mango lassi so much that he downed six glasses at a sitting.
216 Castro St., Mountain View
Hours: Lunch buffet 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. weekdays. (Regular menu also available.) Dinner 5:30-9:30 p.m. Mon.-Thurs., 5:30-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 5:30-9:30 p.m. Sun.
Credit cards: yes
Alcohol: beer and wine
Outdoor dining: no
Party facilities: no
Noise level: high
Bathroom cleanliness: very good