When I arrived at Sofreh Cafe on Varet Street, owner Nasim Alikhani was baking little cardamom and chickpea candies while she compared recipes with an Iranian grandmother across the counter. The grandmother lamented the lack of chickpea flour at her home in Utah.
At a communal table in the center of the cafe, a couple were playing backgammon on a decorated platter. The sounds of customers conversing in English and Farsi filled the space. I ordered a tea and the barista held it up to the light to check its color.
“You are looking for clarity,” he told me. “Looking for the amber color. While the tea is being poured for the customers, you fill the kettle. Predicting, in a way, the strength of tea is something I learn from Nasim.
The walls of Sofreh Cafe are exposed brick covered in speckled white paint, and plants hang from a skylight in the ceiling. The bathroom walls are lined with Iranian advertisements from the 70s. Everything has a simplicity, yet manages to seem intentional. The cafe is atmospheric but also comfortable. The common seating arrangement and system compels people to chat with each other, making the cafe a vibrant meeting place.
“If you look at the design of cafes in Iran, it’s mind-boggling” Alikhani told me. “I’m going to show people pictures, and they say ‘Where is it? Amsterdam? ”
“Iran has been demonized, has been portrayed in a very monolithic way,” she continued. “I just want to show how Iran was and still is. There are so many languages, so many cultures in Iran. It’s so modern at the same time. I want to try not only to show the culture here of what Iran is now, but I also want to connect it to the past, to the past that I know.
Iranian style is dignified. It is simple in its ornamentation but has a striking beauty. The Sofreh Cafe reflects this. Sitting in the cafe, you feel a bit like the countryside.
In addition to the cafe, Alikhani and his partner Ali Saboor, who is the chef at Sofreh’s famous Prospect Heights restaurant, are opening a new full-service restaurant next door, with a slightly different take than Prospect Heights. This is apparently how the idea for the cafe was born, as there was additional space in the new restaurant that could be used for something different.
Below the cafe is the bakery, and Alikhani told me that the new restaurant, named EYVAL, will put more emphasis on breads. Sofreh Cafe serves a lot of these breads, and its fermented barbari bread is one of its specialties.
The barabari bread is firm but soft. It is sprinkled with sesame seeds and black cumin. Black seed is not traditional in the Iranian recipe, as Saboor told me, but it gives the bread a slight herbal tang that complements the texture.
While Sofreh Cafe serves the standard list of coffee drinks, the real coffee specialty is tea. Sofreh Cafe’s tea is dark reddish brown and served ideally without milk in a small glass cup and saucer.
“Although you can find great cafes in New York, Iran has a tea culture. You never enter anywhere in Iran and get take out tea. It is almost blasphemy. Even on a busy day in Tehran, people sit down.
The tea has a deep color, but the flavor is light, with a slight astringent bitterness and a smooth body. It is made with black tea, rose petals, cinnamon, and cardamom, among other spices. The flavor is, like the coffee itself, subtle and understated. But tea is addictive and I drank several cups of it during my visit.
Many of Sofreh Cafe’s sweets, including its cream donut, are made with rose petals. Alikhani told me that although most of the ingredients come from an Iranian supplier, she often brings the rose petals from Iran “in a suitcase”.
“We encourage people to take the time to have their tea, to sit with their friends, to take time with their sweets. Here, it’s not Midtown Manhattan, where everyone is running. Here, people are artists. It is a community. I hope people will come and say “let’s go have a cup of tea”.
Ideal tea supplements are small cookies and candies made with several different types of flour, each with a very specific taste and texture. Many are vegans. Freshly baked barbari bread can be served with jam, butter, or whipped feta cheese.
Alikhani and Saboor chose Bushwick for the Sofreh Cafe and the new EYVAL restaurant because of the diversity of the neighborhood. They said they wanted a younger and more artistic vibe for EYVAL and a menu based on traditional Iranian cuisine but with modern interpretations.
The space for EYVAL is not yet finished. As I walked through it to the kitchen, I noticed a dark turquoise tile floor below me, contrasting with the white tile walls.
In the bakery, Saboor was pulling fresh bread from the oven. The new space, he said, would focus more on those breads and baking on a light fire. Saboor grew up in the United States and cooked classic Italian dishes, American dishes, and barbecues, but now he cooks recipes he grew up with. His aunt owned an Iranian restaurant in Orange County, California, where he started cooking.
“When I got out I thought to myself that I would never work in a restaurant again, but here I am.”
Saboor offered me a beef piroshki and told me that Iranian cuisine is heavily influenced by Russian cuisine and the cuisine of the Caspian region. Growing up, he said, his mother’s beef stroganoff was one of his favorite things.
Sofreh Cafe is a great place to spend an afternoon or a morning. Bakery products are made with clear precision and attention to detail, and their flavors are subtle yet punchy. What really struck me was the multicultural and community atmosphere of the place, which quickly manifested itself upon entering. It was in accordance with Alikhani and Saboor’s explanation of their vision, a place where people can come together to take time out from their busy lives, connect with friends, and enjoy Iran’s rich culture.
Sofreh Café is located at 252 rue Varet, next to the Jefferson L.
All images: Guthrie London
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