According to the Tales of the 1001 Nights, Sheherazade was the clever, and as per the initial arrangement, highly temporary queen of Persia. King Shahyrar responded to the infidelity of his first wife with a rather extreme coping mechanism: after executing Wife Number 1, he took a new virgin bride every day and killed her the next morning as a precautionary measure. After he had burned through 1000 of the most eligible virgins in the kingdom, the educated and beautiful Sheherazade stepped up to the plate with a plan. She would enthrall the King with tale after tale, but ensure that no story ended before the night did. After 1,001 nights, she admitted to the King that she had run out of stories: fortunately by then the King had fallen in love and had fallen out of the habit of killing the Queen.
Sheherzade (at 422 College Street) of Toronto has perhaps only a single tale to tell, but it’s an important and complex narrative and you may fall in love with her more quickly anyway. A national cuisine is nothing less than the history of a country: the traces of conquest, climate and geography, trade relationships and subjugation are evident in this ingredient, that technique, this combination of elements. The Vicarious Travel Society returned to pay a visit in February, having been to its “older sister” restaurant The Pomegranate located next door some years ago.
The Pomegranate deals in different fare: refined and complex soups and stews drawn from the genre of Persian home cooking….Sheherzade is a touch less formal and romantic, and handles the kabab end of the spectrum. It calls itself “Sheherzade Dizi & Grill” to reflect that its food comes from bazaars and roadside open air restaurants. Grilled meats, fluffy rice, flatbreads, salads…the sort of unfussy, tasty food that goes along with a cold beer or endless cups of tea depending on the culture, and casual good times. And with a four year old in tow, as was the case on this particular evening, unfussy is good.
While Sheherzade is a bit more family friendly, that doesn’t mean it lacks exotic ambience. Oh no. It’s a long but cozy room, half a flight of stairs up from College Street, hung with intricate metal lanterns, prints and folk textiles. The beautiful blue tiles from the Iranian city of Esfahan are also worked into the decor to good effect. An impressively large samovar presides over the bar, as befits a restaurant honouring the food of a tea-loving nation. The lights are slightly lowered, the clientele mostly College Street people mixed in with a handful of Iranians. My husband swore he was listening to a Farsi version of “And then he kissed me” by The Crystals on the sound system. Service is friendly and prompt.
Lantern detail. Oooh, pretty. The tables were also spread with Iranian textiles (protected under a thick pane of glass) and the food came out on a succession of lovely little plates and trays with painted or pressed designs.
While studying the menu, we began with a round of chai, mint tea and doogh. Doogh goes by various titles in the near/middle east and Indian subcontinent: it’s plain yoghurt, mixed with water and a little salt, seasoned with a few special extras depending on where you happen to be when you’re drinking it. In the case of Sheherzade and Iran, there’s a little mint and sumac sprinkled on top:
If you ask for your lassi salty, you’ll love doogh. It would be great as a fire extinguisher for chill, but there’s not a great deal of heat in Iranian food, at least that we’ve found so far. For three adults, one young adult and one little kid, we decided to order two appetizers, three mains and then we’d see how we felt about dessert. Our starters were Zeitoon Parvardeh “whole green pitted olives with ground walnuts, crushed garlic, pomegranate paste, sprinkled with mint” and Kal Kabob “charred eggplant, crushed garlic, chopped tomato, ground walnuts and pomegranate juice.”
That’s Zeitoon Parvardeh on the left, Kal Kabob near the bottom. Both came with a good sized basket of warm Iranian flatbread wrapped up in a patterned cloth. The bread wasn’t quite what I was expecting: I thought it might be a little more like naan or pita (i.e. flatter) but it’s cross between classical yeast leavened Western bread and true flatbreads. It tears and absorbs fluid similarly to a baguette but is much lower to the ground, like foccacia. At Sheherzade, it’s baked (or at least crisped in the oven) to order so if you think you’ll need more (and we did), best to put word in with the waitstaff earlier rather than later. The Zeitoon Parvardeh was enjoyed enormously by people at our table who like olives to begin with: even the olive haters thought it was okay, redeemed by the unusual combination of walnut and pomegranate which bounced off the saltiness of the olives nicely. The Kal Kabob was like a distinct variant of melitzanosalata or babaghanoush, but richer in flavour for the lack of yoghurt. The pomegranate juice added more tartness than sweetness and was a great alternative to lemon. Then the mains started coming, first Kabab Bahktiari (Beef and Chicken) and Shishlik (Lamb):
Just one picture of the Bahktiari, because the plates were identical but for the meat. Both were grilled with “Persian spices”, marinated in lemon and saffron and came with a large pile of moist and fluffy saffron basmati rice (referred to as “chelo” rice on the menu), a grilled whole tomato and a simple salad. On the side, pats of Lactancia butter and a shaker of sumac for chelo rice purists. There was not exactly a ton of meat here, but the spices on the two different grills were quite different and the meat not overdone, tricky to do with thin slices like these. The lamb shishlik was composed of several narrowly sliced lambchops. The 11 year old in company declared them “tough” but mine was okay. The visual appeal of alternating beef and chicken was attractive and the textural contrast between the different meats enjoyable too. Then, the Abgoosht platter arrived:
Performance art as much as food, and very like Peking Duck, this is a multi-part process. First, the kitchen starts by making a stew composed of lamb shank, lamb rib, white beans, onions, potatoes, chickpeas, tomatoes, and spices and cooks it slowly for four hours. Then, only the broth is poured off a serving of the stew into a bowl, and the stew residue goes into a tiny cylindrical pot with a lid to stay warm. The whole thing is served with more bread, a bowl of yoghurt and a small bowl of mixed pickles, basically a green chutney with a little heat from red chile.
You start by ripping up the bread into little chunks and throwing it into the soup (red liquid at right, which you can now see because the bread has been removed) where it soaks up the intense flavour like soft croutons. The broth is extremely rich from all the lamb fat cooking into it all afternoon, but there’s a slight tang from chile and other mysterious ingredients that stop it short of becoming too greasy or gamey tasting. Part 2 involves specialty equipment:
A steel plunger comes with the platter, which is designed to mash the stew into a paste before you eat it, sopping it up with more bread. The stew actually looked quite good as it was, so some of our party declined to mash, but I went with the recommended approach. The meat was so soft after the long cooking that it mashed better than you might think, resulting in a thick and delicious texture. The yoghurt smoothed it out even a little more and the chutney added a touch of piquance that pulled the whole composition back from the brink of totally recognizable comfort food. If we ever go back to Sheherzade, it would be impossible not to order this again.
The dessert card was short, so we ordered it all: saffron/rosewater “ice cream” and the mini platter of Iranian sweets:
The sweets (in the foreground) included delicate tiny cardamom flavoured flower cookies that nearly crumbled before making it into our mouths to melt away. There was also an Iranian version of a jelabi (a thin trail of saffron coloured dough squiggled into a deep fryer, fried til crisp and then dipped in a light syrup flavoured with orange water or something else) which was very nice and not horrendously sweet. There was also a ring of mixed nut brittle, the flavour deep and dark from the nearly burned sugar. The ice cream…
…wasn’t ice cream per se in the sense that if had not been turned with a dasher while being frozen, but instead poured into a mould and chilled. The texture was still fairly creamy, but it doesn’t exactly “scoop” in the way that western ice cream does…it was more like a giant puck of zafran kulfi. Topped with fresh pomegranate seeds, brilliant green pistachio nuts and silvered almonds, it was a light and refreshing end to a very satifying meal but it would have been a lot for one person.
We declined more tea, but lounged around and told our own 1,001 tales of Iran: Margie crossed the country on a truck a few years back and had known an Iranian family in Pennsylvania as a child, I had unfulfilled plans to approach it from the east when I lived in Pakistan and was hearing interesting things from the trickle of travellers who had been there and were passing through Islamabad for one reason or another. It’s a complicated, intriguing place many people have had to leave in recent times, but it’s fortunate for us in Toronto that some of those expatriates have given us an opportunity to experience part of what they love about it and hear a little of their story, too.
Sheherzade Dizi & Grill, 422 College Street
$105.00 covered dinner for three adults, one young adult and one four year old (including drinks, tax & tip)