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Spread at Sofreh
Photograph: Courtesy of SofrehSofreh

Iranian food is having a New York moment

The owners of Sofreh, Masquerade and more dissect the cuisine's current popularity.

Written by
Anna Rahmanan
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Although New York’s culinary scene has always been ripe with ethnic offerings, Iranian food has never really gotten a proper treatment on this side of the world. The likes of Colbeh and Ravagh have certainly staked their claim in the local gastronomic canon, but the offerings of such years-old restaurants have recently been feeling stale and, perhaps, not as up-with-the-times as the Korean, Mexican and Italian eateries that call New York home. Sure, kabob and khoresht are part and parcel—some might even say the very heart—of Persian cuisine… but what else can an Iranian palate offer the world?

Masquerade
Photograph: Julia KhoroshilovMasquerade

We seem, indeed, to be at the dawn of a new era, as exciting new Iranian destinations have opened in Manhattan and Brooklyn, each one putting forward a menu that the owners believe to be more in tune with the current state of affairs in Tehran, Mashhad and all throughout the country. The revamp seems to be occurring at high-speed, with at least four new restaurants landing on the scene in the span of a year. It all begs the question: is Iranian food having a New York moment? And, if so, why now?

"People are ready [for Iranian food] now," says Pouya Esghai, co-owner of Masquerade, a new Persian tapas bar in South Williamsburg. "Although food was always very important to us Iranians, the focus on the children was to become lawyers and doctors. After the 1979 revolution, they all left the country and it took a bit of time for Iran to adapt to the new system. It took Iranians a little while to realize that maybe we can be part of the food industry and still have a fulfilling career. Others countries had already come to terms with [the power of food]."

On the other hand, Siavash Karampour, Esghai’s partner, believes that globalization and New Yorkers' perennially open disposition are key factors propelling the popularity of his hometown cuisine. "Young people now have more access to sources and are more open-minded," he says. "They are ready to taste new and different cuisines and cocktails."

"What people don’t know is that rice and kabob are only a small, tiny fraction of our cuisine."

That diversity is most readily apparent when dining at Sofreh, an elegant but laid-back Persian restaurant in Prospect Heights by the same folks behind Sofreh Cafe, a more casual, newer version of the former destination, found in Bushwick.

At Sofreh, adventurous palates will revel in the flavors of the herb-heavy ash, a traditional stew made with noodles, lentils, cured yogurt, fried mint and more; saffron rice; smoked eggplant served with a slow-roasted tomato garlic sauce, poached eggs and bread; and, of course, a ribeye kabob. Clearly a more modern and, at least according to owner Nasim Alikhani, realistic version of an average Iranian meal, Sofreh seeks to bridge the gap between the United States and the Iran of today.

"There has been limited exposure," says Alikhani. "What people don’t know is that rice and kabob are only a small, tiny fraction of our cuisine and we only eat that once every few months or when we go out as a family." On a daily basis, she explains, the local food scene depends on climate and ethnicity-related differences across the land. 

Dessert at Sofreh
Photograph: Courtesy of SofrehSofreh

When asked about the difference between Sofreh and Colbeh, which opened almost four decades ago, Alikhani is firm in her response. "I don’t want to be compared to any of them at all because I have a problem with people who do the same thing over and over again and don’t bring any element of self into it," she says. "They are so predictable. I don’t even need to read their menus because I know exactly what is going to be in there."

Karampour echoes those sentiments. "Traditional Persian restaurants are outdated and don’t cater to the modern taste of young Iranians with their dishes, which are cliché," he says. "The newer generation felt the need to be better represented in terms of taste."

Modernism takes the form of tapas at Karampour’s and Esghai’s restaurant. At Masquerade, small plates—which haven’t ever really been a part of a traditional Iranian meal, at least as presented to the outside world—take up the majority of the menu alongside creative cocktails made with saffron and olives, a culinary category that has gone largely untapped at other Persian destinations (a fact that is in no doubt largely due to the fact that Iran is, technically, a dry country).

Julia Khoroshilov
Photograph: Julia KhoroshilovMasquerade

Given the excitement around the very recent opening of Masquerade and Alikhani’s decision to open yet-another Persian eatery in New York (Eyval, grounded in tradition but also offering live fire cooking, is scheduled to open by the beginning of the new year), the restaurateurs are clearly onto something.

"Iranian food is delicious because it is thousands of years old," says Alikhani. "And once you have that—which you also have in Chinese, Japanese and Indian food, for example—you get a complexity that is beyond description because it’s the product of thousands of years. I am not reinventing anything: I just have to represent what was done thousands of years ago and do it well."

Speaking of history: given the intricacies of the US-Iran relationship, conversations regarding politics flourish almost naturally when chatting with all restaurant owners, all of whom are deeply familiar with their country of origin.

Alikhani believes that her restaurant might help expand the definition of what Iran is about in the eyes of Americans. "I see food as an amazing starting dialogue to anything," she says. "Over the past 40 years, Iran has basically been bastardized by stereotypes and by basically being put in a box by people who don’t know. Iran has never been portrayed as a country of cultured people, modern and highly sophisticated." She, of course, hopes to change that through the food she’s putting forward.

Dishes at Sofreh
Photograph: Courtesy of SofrehSofreh

Interestingly enough, the duo behind Masquerade mentioned the oppression that plenty of Iranians face as the inspiration behind their gastronomic project. "[Masquerade] is an imaginary Tehran," says Esghai. "If it were a free country and we could use our imagination, [this place would be there. We're a utopian place that mixes Iran in the 1970s with 2020 New York and an element of Mardi Gras."

No matter their opinion on the current state of affairs in the Middle East, all restaurateurs found Brooklyn to be the ideal locale for their endeavors, all of them consciously stepping outside of Manhattan. 

"The south side of Williamsburg felt more real and appealing," says Esghai. "It reminded us of Tehran more, it's kind of raunchy like the city."

"I came to Brooklyn because people are much more receptive here, both palate-wise and mind-wise," explains Alikhani. "I've lived in Manhattan since 1983 so I've sen it changing and I wasn't interested in my baby being born in an environment that is full of tourists and people who come and go. People come here for Sofreh. They don't just happen to be walking around the West Village and picking one of a million restaurants." 

That sense of community as a springboard for creativity is exactly what Alikhani hopes to see more in the future. "There is something to be said about young people bringing flavors forward and representing their own environments and climates and their way of eating," she says. 

Clearly, as New Yorkers have likely noticed while exploring the local flourishing Iranian food scene, there is much more to tahdeeg and dolme than remarkable flavors.

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