As a restaurant reviewer, one of the first things I look for is cleanliness. That starts with a smudge-free front door and extends inside to window sills, lighting, the floor, how tables are bused, if the restroom sparkles. Of course, during the course of service, marring occurs but astute staff is constantly on the alert and makes things right as quickly and unobtrusively as possible. If public areas are less than pristine, what does the kitchen look like?
When I entered the smallish Kolbeh Mediterranean Grill in Mountain View, spotlessness was evident. It might have been the cleanest restaurant I've ever dined in.
Sobhanieh Patra and her mother Farangis took over the El Camino Real space two years ago, then called Best Bite. They reshaped the menu, upgraded the dining room and did away with the inelegant window signage. The place was transformed from a gyro-falafel-kabob stop to a more refined Mediterranean restaurant.
That is not say they eliminated Persian staples. There are enticing appetizers, delicious kabobs, delightful wraps, earthy soups, redolent salads and alluring desserts, along with daily specials.
The recipes were developed by Farangis, who hails from northern Iran near the Caspian Sea. Sobhanieh said her mother makes everything from scratch and is in the kitchen six days a week.
Kolbeh, in Farsi, means a small cottage; warm, friendly, and comfortable.
The baba ghanoush ($6.95) -- baked puréed eggplant with tahini, garlic and olive oil, served with wedges of pita -- had a delightful hint of fresh garlic that tickled the palate.
Four dolmas ($4.95) were tightly wrapped and stuffed with minced vegetables and rice, then bathed in olive oil and lemon juice. Tender and pleasing, the dolmas were served with pita bread and homemade yogurt.
Salad shirazi ($5.95) was garden-fresh diced cucumbers, tomatoes, red onions, olive oil and lemon juice. The vegetables were freshly chopped, vibrant and crisp, as if they had just been brought in from a sunny patch.
The joojeh kabob ($14.95), a half-dozen chunks of boneless, marinated chicken thighs, came charbroiled and served with aromatic, long-grained basmati rice and grilled tomato.
The lamb filet kabob ($21.95), marinated and seasoned, was charbroiled to perfection, also served with basmati rice and grilled tomato. The meat was fork tender, with mild but distinctive lamb flavor, though there was no visible fat.
The shawarma charbroiled-chicken wrap ($9.95) was a heaping roll-up of lettuce, tomato, onions and pickles, spiced with sumac and wrapped in pliant lavash bread. Sumac is a subtropical shrub that grows in east Asia, Africa and North America, and its dried fruit adds a tangy, lemony flavor.
The shawarma came with two sauces: one a mild and peppery orange sauce; the other a flaming arrow to the salivary glands, a sauce that bit back. Red and fiery, made from peppers, garlic and oil, it left the lips smacking and the hand reaching for the water glass.
What's the difference between a gyro and a shawarma? Both feature slivers of marinated spit-roasted meat cooked at high temperatures to seal in juices. The gyro is a Greek invention and usually uses beef or lamb. The cooked meat is seasoned with oregano, marjoram, thyme and rosemary, and is compressed into a loaf.
The Middle Eastern shawarma is usually chicken or lamb, but in the U.S., beef is often used. The meat is roasted the same way but spiced with turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon and cloves. The meat is cut directly from the spit for the shawarma. Toppings vary from culture to culture, but all make big, fat, delicious wraps.
Desserts were worthwhile. The standard bearer of eastern Mediterranean restaurants, baklava ($4.99), was exceptionally good. The secret of a successful baklava is keeping the filo pastry crisp around the nut and honey filling. Kolbeh's rendition was nectarous.
The bastani ice cream ($5.99) was interesting. French vanilla was mixed with Iranian rose water, Iranian saffron and crushed pistachios. The ice cream took on the yellowy saffron color and had a drier, more granular consistency than traditional ice creams. Quite tasty.
Kolbeh is one of those places that must have inspired the saying, "so clean, you could eat off the floor." I wouldn't recommend that, but I can say the place was immaculate and the kitchen has a clear vision of what's important -- freshness, authenticity, flavor and presentation.
Kolbeh Mediterranean Grill
1414 W. El Camino Real, Mountain View
Hours: Lunch, Monday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner, Monday-Saturday, 5:30-9:30 p.m.
Credit cards: yes
Alcohol: wine and beer
Happy hour: no
Outdoor dining: no
Noise level: moderate
Bathroom cleanliness: excellent