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In the old tale of "Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves," the magic words that reveal the secret treasure are "Open Sesame."

At the Atlas Grill in downtown Minneapolis' Pillsbury Center, the magic words are, "Please ask the chef to order for us." Even saying those words won't reveal all of Atlas' secret treasures. To discover the rest, you must know more.

I had dined before at the Atlas, and quite well. I always left with the feeling that there was more to this restaurant than met the palate. The list included a few Middle Eastern dishes, leading me to suspect that the kitchen must be capable of more than the menu revealed.

Acting on a tip, I recently returned with a group of friends and said the magic words. The chef, Gholam-Abbas Shahbazi, appeared soon thereafter and asked only one question: Did we want fish and other seafood, meat, or a combination?

We opted for the latter, and soon the dishes began to appear. First, a big appetizer plate of intensely flavorful, delicately roasted mussels, drizzled with a sumac aioli, followed by fat broiled scallops with mango chutney.

Next came the salad: a simple plate of baby greens and romaine tossed with pistachios and lemony Parmesan dressing. The main courses followed.

One giant platter was topped with grilled orange roughy; a grilled trout; blackened swordfish topped with a relish of blackeyed peas; salmon with a dill sauce; skewers of flame-broiled chicken breast, and savory marinated ground chicken with spices.

Two smaller platters - beef tenderloin topped with wild mushrooms, and steamed salmon surrounded by grilled peppers - were accompanied by three kinds of basmati rice - plain, dilled and what Shahbazi calls "Jewish rice," sweet orange rice flavored with honey, pistachios and saffron.

For all this food, we were charged for two three-person platters at $49.95 each, plus $7.95 for the mussels and $9.95 for the scallops. Some of these same dishes are also on the menu, including the blackened swordfish ($16.95), skewers of chicken breast ($10.95 for two) and salmon (prepared differently, $12.95).

I returned a few weeks later determined to probe deeper into the mystery of the Atlas. This time, when Shahbazi - whom everyone calls Abbas - appeared at my table, I announced that I had just seen a Persian movie and wanted to have Persian food.

Which film? he asked. "Gabbeh," I said, and his eyes lit up.

Without knowing it, I had again spoken magic words. This time it was Abbas who opened up and sparkled. He hadn't seen the movie yet, he told us, but he was eager to do so, because it was a film about his own people, the Bahktiari tribe. As the movie showed, the Bahktiaris are nomads who wander with their flocks through southwest Iran.

The movie was beautiful, almost magical, I told him, but there was one thing I wanted to know: Do Bakhtiari women really dress so colorfully every day? Yes, said Abbas, who came to the United States in the 1970s to study at North Texas State University in Denton. For the Bakhtiari, he explained, "color is life" - exactly repeating one of the lines of the movie. ("Gabbeh" will be screened at the U Film Society Saturday at 3 p.m. and Sunday at 1:30 p.m. Call 627-4430.)

The Persian food turned out to be simple but delicious: a platter for two ($29.90) that included flame-broiled skewers of marinated ground beef, flank steak, ground chicken and boneless chicken, all juicy and flavorful, with roasted tomatoes and mounds of the three rices.

The desserts were mostly commercial pastries made elsewhere, but the homemade pistachio saffron ice cream, flavored with rosewater, was delightful ($3.50).

Even after this visit, intuition told me there were still undiscovered treasures, so I called the restaurant's co-owner, Anoush Ansari. Ansari, whose father was Iran's minister of health under Shah Reza Pahlavi, first came to Minnesota in the '70s for a summer vacation; when the revolution broke out, he decided to stay. Before opening his own restaurant, he worked for Gordon Schutte and D'Amico Partners.

Ansari stressed that the Atlas isn't a Persian restaurant. As the name suggests, it draws its inspiration from the whole world, and offers dishes ranging from Chilean sea bass in parchment with capers, lemon, asparagus and artichoke ($14.95) to grilled ribeye with onion potatoes ($18.95).

But when I pressed him to help me find the restaurant's hidden treasures, he revealed the third magic incantation: "khoresht," the word for stew in Farsi, the prevalent language in Iran. Chef Abbas' stews are available only in the evening, he said, and only by request.

So I made my request and was rewarded with two flavorful beef stews ($7.95 each) - one called gheimeh, made with yellow split peas, tomato and preserved limes; the other, ghormeh sabzi, made with spinach, cilantro, parsley, tarragon, beans and a complex blend of spices.

Both were tasty and quite tart. Gastronomic adventurers will want to try them, but for most diners, the fish and seafood dishes, and the skewers of beef and chicken, will hold more appeal. Shahbazi also served a small plate of tah-deek ($3.95), a strip of crispy rice scraped from the bottom of the cookpot and topped with a lentil and lime sauce.

The Atlas Grill, with its dark wood, burgundy drapes, crystal chandeliers and large aquariums filled with tropical fish, is one of the Twin Cities' most elegant and attractive dining rooms. It's busy at lunchtime and nearly empty at night.

Atlas Grill

- Where: Pillsbury Center, 200 S. 6th St., Minneapolis, 332-4200.

- Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dinner Monday to Thursday 5:30 to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 10 p.m.

- Price range/info: Lunch $8.95 to $16.95, dinner $10.95 to $27.95. All cards except Discover. A few vegetarian items. Full bar. Smoking in bar only.

- Review: A stylish and sophisticated menu with a Persian flavor. Specialties include fire-roasted beef and chicken, sea bass in parchment, and grilled ribeye. Aventurers will want to ask the chef to order for them.

- Parking: Parking in Pillsbury ramp beneath restaurant, validated evenings. Enter on 5th St.