Alounak may, I suppose, run the risk of going to the other extreme. Build up a reputation gradually by all means, but some might think a Portakabin in a car-park beside the heavy goods line at Kensington Olympia was the wrong place to start. It is quite hard to find. I was told it was directly behind the filling station on your left as you come over the railway bridge on the way in from Hammersmith. This is true, but "directly" will take you into the yard of a car hire firm. Follow the high wire fence on your left up another two or three hundred yards, and the Alounak Cafe is (I think) the second entrance, on the footpath to Kensington Olympia station, past a pine workshop, tucked in on your right as you go in, behind the car-park warden's office. It is a long low white shed distinguished by two hanging baskets, one containing a plant just alive, the other definitely dead, a delicious smell of cooking, and a little black door with the name on it in Persian script.
I took my most sophisticated friend, a dazzling beauty who turned up in silver high heels and a sort of winter yachting outfit, and I noticed her nostrils flare with excitement the moment we sat down. The men, she said, were absolutely gorgeous, quite incredibly glamorous. I had a look round. Quite a few were Iranian, some rather needing a shave, all definitely hollow-chested and wearing big overcoats. Not my idea of glamour, but then I'm not very sophisticated. Some of them, it was true, had quite pretty English girls with them, and one of them had two.
I had been warned that the Alounak was not licensed, so I had bought a bottle of red wine on the way. A white plastic corkscrew still screwed into the last cork was slapped down on the white plastic table-top in a welcoming manner by the cook/waiter, together with a menu in Persian and English. I should probably say Iranian, but the Alounak advertises "Best Persian Food Open 12 AM to 12 PM" on the bill, and it does sound more reassuring.
The English menu is quite a collector's piece for lovers of the misprint, but roughly speaking it offers a limited choice of starters, nine varieties of kebab, and a dish of the day from Monday to Saturday. On Monday for instance you can have Khoresh gheimeh (Choped Lamb), on Tuesday Zershg Polo ba Morgh (Rice cooked with barberry served with chicken), and so on. As it was a Wednesday I asked for Khorsh Gheimeh bBademjan (lamb cooked with aubergine and spices served with rice), but that had run out. There are also soft drinks, and something I was tempted by called Dough Yoghurt Drink, but I thought it might not go with wine.
To start with we ordered Sabzi-o Panir, (fresh herbs with cheese), Maast- o Khiyar, (yoghurt mixed with diced cucumber), Torshi Leeteh, ("Aubergicepickle") and bread, and thought about the decor. There are some little ship's lanterns with green glass in, some other lanterns with plain glass, the walls are white like the stables, one or two frames of mounted butterflies, various colourful paintings and photographs of Middle Eastern landscapes, and what could have been two large coloured heads from a blown-up Persian miniature or just a Persian ordinary size.
My companion continued to shudder with lust as more unshaven overcoats banged in - the Portakabin shakes quite violently when anyone shuts the door - to collect takeaways, but I persevered, steered the conversation round to sudden illness, death and the merits of the National Health Service, and we talked away quite happily till the starters arrived.
The fresh herbs were a real surprise, an absolutely fresh heap of mint- leaves with half a raw onion underneath, a piece of fetta cheese and two radishes. The bread we both agreed was probably fresh, a large folded unleavened pancake, but slightly dry, and the more conventional yoghurt and cucumber absolutely fine. Eating raw mint leaves and chunks of onion seemed quite healthy, though there was a bit of trouble folding up sandwiches of very thin pitta bread with yoghurt and chutney inside, which had a way of bursting, and I'm not sure we were given plates.
The main course certainly came on a plate, with a fork and spoon wrapped in a paper napkin. Having failed to get the Wednesday special, I had Chelo Kebab Chengeh (shishlik kebab served with rice) and my glamorous friend had Chelo Kebab barg (Mience kebab and fillet steak/grilled tomatos served with rice). In both cases the meat was a revelation: no sign of a skewer, just a beautifully cooked line of thin-cut, marinated meat accompanied by a heap of very pure-tasting white rice, decoated with a few grains of saffron. The cook/waiter brought some butter, suggesting we might like to mix it with the rice, but we thought it was very good as it was. My companion was very slightly critical of there being no knives, but we decided it might be a security measure, and managed without.
Dinner for two came to pounds 17.30. There was no pudding or coffee so we went and drank a lot of Baume de Venise in a smart bar haunted by supermodels. It cost a great deal more than dinner in the Portakabin, but it was nice to have my companion's undivided attention.