Kuku sibzamani, the first dish of our nine-course tasting menu at Albany Park newcomer Maman Zari, tasted familiar enough—a delicate, frittata-like potato and egg cake laced with tender zucchini shreds. But the accompanying sweet, paper-thin pickle coins and a shockingly green dab of herbaceous dalal, a north Iranian condiment affectionately known as “green salt,” seemed to shake us gently by the shoulders as if to say, “I’m not quite what you think!” A honeyed, dry sparkling German riesling pairing heightened the delicate contrasts, making me giddy for what lay ahead.
Persian cuisine as Chicagoans typically experience it—a few paces down Kedzie Avenue at the terrific restaurants Noon-O-Kabab and Kabobi Grill, betrays the Iranian penchant for seasoning via nourishing heaps of fresh herbs; streaks of sweet, meaty pomegranate molasses; and warming, vintagey saffron. These restaurants likewise demonstrate a mastery of buttery, crisp-edged rice, soft charred eggplant and succulent grilled lamb and poultry—all in more casual, family-style guises of juicy kabobs served over heaps of saffron-stained rice dotted with plump dried fruit.
At Maman Zari (named for owner and former flight attendant Mariam Shahsavarani’s grandmother, who taught her to cook), Shahsavarani reimagines these preparations in more thought-provoking formats, leaning on the culinary prowess of Italian chef/partner Matteo Lo Bianco (Coco Pazzo, Volare, Francesca’s, Rosebud) and her own deep knowledge of Persian food and history, thanks to a lifetime of visits with her late grandparents between Iran and Chicago.
Maman Zari is one of the best prix-fixe deals in the city, well paced and priced at $85 for sizably portioned omnivorous and vegetarian options (plus optional—and worthwhile—wine pairings for $45). But I found myself losing steam midway through on a few misses and wondering if the menu would benefit from a slimdown.
The first few courses—all vegetarian—positively sang. Abdoogh khiar, a chilled yogurt soup with cucumber, walnuts and raisins, was a sensual refresher heaped with minty chopped dill, mint, tarragon and basil. The more I stirred (as suggested by our considerate server), the more I appreciated each component: The walnut’s bitter edge and chalky crunch; the mild, slowly softening lavash cracker; the plump, sweet raisins; the quenching cucumber; the yogurt’s round-edged sourness.
With the removal of a glass cloche, a cloud of smoke dissipated its campfire essence over course three, a dynamic mezze of mirza ghasemi, a velvety double-smoked half of baby eggplant and airy tahdig chip. We piled these atop chewy, sesame seed-flecked bread with accompanying sabzi khordan (fresh herbs and marinated olives).
A subsequent cube of compressed watermelon and feta lacked seasoning and left my tongue dry (salad-e hendevaneh)—something intermittent bursts of tiny balsamic pearls couldn’t remedy. On that note, Lo Bianco deploys modernist cheffery in a few spots—blitzing saffron-tinged rice then dehydrating it into the aforementioned delicious tahdig chip. But my favorite example might be at dessert, when he balances a sphere of sweetened lime juice over rosewater-tinged rice noodle sorbet (faloodeh), which erupts in slow motion under the weight of a spoon in this texturally unique refresher.
The three middle courses leaned a little hard on traditional entrée-style compositions, which muddled them into redundancy—more noticeably on the vegetarian end. A pleasant dish of mixed mushrooms in saffron beurre blanc over smoked, herbed rice (gharch zaffrani) preceded an underwhelming grilled zucchini steak with sour grapes and rice (kadoo). A slab of nicely charred eggplant was overpowered by a thick nappé of sweet, tannic walnut-pomegranate stew in anar avij.
The eggplant’s gamier, toothsome quail counterpart (fesenjan) stood up a little better to the sweet, unctuous stew, though in both versions, the chewy-crunchy puck of tahdig was the highlight. Similarly, the mushrooms’ gharch zaffrani’s meaty fellow (mahi sefid) triumphed with the addition of a buttery portion of branzino, pan-fried to flaky perfection and set afloat in the same saffron beurre blanc. I almost wished instead to singularly behold—and better appreciate—each of these standout components: The branzino in its warming sauce with a few buttery mushrooms, a juicy lamb chop atop a purist swipe of tomato sauce (shishlik). Tahdig could probably stand alone, too, a testament to the crunchy crust by which every Iranian maman’s culinary skill is measured.
The menu will change at the end of October, trading bright and summery dishes for deeper fall flavors. Shahsavarani says customers can expect courses such as ghalieh mahi, a Southern Iranian herb fish stew with tamarind; and istanbuli polo, a rice dish with tomato, split peas and potatoes. The mirza ghasemi will, blessedly, remain.
I can’t wait to see how Maman Zari’s menu evolves and grows more confidently into its own. In the meantime, what a giddy, delicious first for Chicago.
The vibe: Rich Persian blues burst into view in the foyer before retreating into quiet accents throughout the minimalist dining room of leather banquettes, wood and earthen-hued tile and white tablecloths.
The food: A thoughtful repackaging of traditional Persian cooking spans nine generous dishes, but could use a few edits. Highlights include mirza ghasemi (smoked eggplant with tahdig chip), tangy, herb-packed yogurt soup and flaky branzino in saffron beurre blanc. The menu, which transitions seasonally, will change at the end of October.
The drink: Cocktails lean spirit forward, like the cidery old fashioned-esque Old Ferman, with bourbon, date honey syrup and aromatic bitters; and Arak Arak, a boozy delight of watermelon, anisey arak and grappa that forms big, lingering bubbles when shaken. Wine pairings run the worldly gamut of whites and pinks, from young Portuguese vinho verde and South African chenin blanc to California sangiovese rosé, punctuated by a few excellent reds, including French beaujolais.