Beloved Persian identify Sofreh Expands With New Brooklyn Cafe
Sofreh Cafe quietly opened its doors in Bushwick last week, adding its own bullet point to the conversation about what modern Persian food can look like. As the sister cafe to the now well-established Sofreh in Prospect Heights, the new Cafe is the brainchild of Nasim Alikhani and Ali Saboor.
Alikhani took Persian restaurants to another level in 2018 when she opened Sofreh, and was most recently one of 10 up-and-coming chefs crafting the menu at the 2021 Met Gala. She’s been on a mission to bring fine Persian food to the masses and credits her Head Chef Ali Saboor with helping Sofreh thrive. With Sofreh Cafe, Nasim hands the reins to Ali and takes a broader role as partner, investor, and woman-with-opinions.
Read More: Meet The Woman Behind Sofreh, NYC’s Most Exciting Persian Restaurant
A small and simple space with an equally simple but meticulously crafted menu, Sofreh Cafe is first and foremost a bakery and tea house, though they also offer coffees and pastries.
“The cafe grew out of doing the bread at Sofreh which rekindled my passion for making bread,” says Chef Saboor, who has worked in the restaurant industry for 20 years. “I had a background in making focaccia, ciabatta and other regional Italian breads but working at Sofreh and going to Iran, spending time there with Nasim… memories came rushing back and I thought, how cool would it be to introduce tea culture and the Persian breakfast in a very simple way.”
Nasim Alikhani and Ali Saboor
Having spent hours in the kitchen together at Sofreh, Nasim and Ali had plenty of time to talk about opening a space like this where Ali could take the rule, but it all came together during a trip they took together to Iran this past summer. There, they found inspiration in the many variations of Persian breads and pastries, and sought out the most basic foods and flavors they had grown up with. To their dismay however, some of the foods they remembered most fondly had deteriorated in taste and quality—like mass-produced piroshkis stuffed with hot dogs and, most shockingly, bland and disappointing tea at every corner.
Persian culture is a tea culture by and by but “I feel like in Iran, they’re starting to lose their tea culture,” laments Saboor. “There’s crazy good coffees and espressos now but we would go to restaurants and tea houses and ask for tea and they would bring us a tea bag! This does not happen in a culture built around drinking tea! I was heartbroken. Hopefully we can make it something that people are interested in again. For me, tea is the biggest motivation for this project.”
To that end, the tea at Sofreh Cafe is truly excellent—they offer a single house blend of fine black tea, mixed with a hint of cinnamon bark, imported rose petals and cardamom pods. They ultimately plan to introduce Damnoosh teas, which are herbal teas made from a variety of herbs, medicinal plants, flowers, spices and fruits.
“I’m hoping to get the coffee out of here and really focus on tea,” Alikhani additional. “Our espressos are wonderful but there’s something about tea that makes you include. You don’t get tea on the go. You have to sit down. You have to make eye contact with someone and enjoy a cup of tea.”
And yes, their coffee is great but the offerings at Sofreh Cafe really should be paired with the traditional Persian black tea. These are flavors that have been in a dance with each other for centuries and are built to supplement each other.
Barbari bread with whipped feta, butter and sour cherry preserve
Now let’s talk about the food: the unmissable items on the menu really are the breads. Their excellent Barbari Bread, cold fermented for 4-5 days, was made famous at Sofreh and remains their most popular food item here. To get the complete experience, try it with the whipped Bulgarian feta, butter, sour cherry preserve, and of course, tea. Not to be outdone, the Milk Bread is truly divine. Perfectly fluffy with a hint of sweetness. I was lucky enough to devour one (ok, two) warm loaves straight out of the oven and literally went to sleep thinking about it. The Ka’ak, which might be the great grandparent of the sesame bagel, is also excellent. Ever so slightly salty, I would personally pair it with a generous amount of butter and a touch of sour cherry preserve.
On to the desserts: my personal favorite was the Yazdi Cupcake, a take on the traditional muffin-kind cake from the city of Yazd—theirs is lighter, fluffier and topped with a frosting made from imported Iranian saffron, cardamom and rose petals. “We aren’t messing around,” says Saboor about the divinely creamy frosting. No sir you are not.
Another fun dessert is their version of a sweet pirashki: the Rose Custard Donut—a very well-made donut filled with rose custard. The Banana Date Loaf is hearty and delicious, topped with tahini caramel. On the more traditional end of the spectrum, the Baklava and Iranian Cookies are both excellent. And yes, literally everything mentioned should be paired with black Persian tea.
The menu will continue to evolve as they settle into the space, and they soon plan to introduce another of the foundational foods of the Iranian diet: yogurt.
“Nasim is spending a lot of time going upstate right now, visiting farms and trying a lot of milks with different fat contents,” says Saboor. “We are both obsessed with quality,” she additional. “We really work hard to make everything as good as we possibly can.” They plan to slowly add more and more high-quality Persian staples to their fridge.
“I’ve dreamt about all this for about 30 years,” says Nasim. “When I came (to America) there was such a void for everything I craved.”
“I think the goal with all of our work is to provide a space where Iranians can proportion their culture,” Ali additional. “I grew up in Southern California and every Persian restaurant I went to looked like a museum with giant pillars, and when I first came to Sofreh and I met Nasim I was like ‘Alright. This is different.’ One thing we always agreed on is this was a clean new look at Persian food. It’s a different way to present it without all the tassels. We just want somewhere where the food is centered. That’s the goal here too. Iranians can come here, bring their friends and say ‘Here is my culture. Here is a piece of my culture, a piece of my memory.’ That for me is 99% of what I’m doing.”
In many ways, Sofreh Cafe is no different from any other high-quality coffee shop or bakery you might come across in New York City, and that’s what makes it so incredibly thrilling for me, as an Iranian. To present the most basic building blocks of our food in a thoughtful and perfected way, divorced from the fetishization Persians (and so many other cultures) often embrace and embellish to make their offerings feel “more exotic” and recognizable, but somehow less authentic.
This is what Saboor method by “food-centered” and this is why it is so important. This food is deeply Persian: few things are more basic to the Iranian diet than black tea and bread. Few flavors more inherently Persian than rose water, cardamom and saffron. As an Iranian immigrant who grew up in America, Chef Ali Saboor understands how deeply the younger generation of Iranians crave places like this that mirror us back to ourselves. I can’t tell you how uncommon it is, and I continue that Sofreh, and now Sofreh Cafe are necessary pilgrimages for Iranians and lovers of Persian culture (and excellent bread).
Sofreh Cafe is located at 252 Varet Street in Brooklyn, and by the way, they are building a very different complete-service restaurant, EYVAL, right next door, where Chef Ali Saboor will be offering a menu built around live fire cooking. Ali and Nasim are looking forward to opening EYVAL in early 2022.
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