Thanks to the in gathering of the exiles, Israel is blessed with scores of ethnic restaurants serving the foods of the Jewish Diaspora. Restaurants specializing in Persian cuisine are among the least well known, despite the rich culinary traditions of that ancient empire, and its plethora of recipes incorporating one of Israel’s most beloved fruits of the sheva minim (the “seven species” of the Holy Land) – the pomegranate.
Fortunately, the talented executive chef of the Beta Caffe chain, Ayelet Latowitz, has taken it upon herself to make the cuisine of her personal heritage more accessible to the general public. This summer, she inaugurated “Sabzi Nights”– two evenings a month featuring a special menu of authentic Persian delicacies prepared by Latowitz and her aunts.
The special Sabzi menu comprises three sections: Starters, Main Courses and Desserts. Every order of a main course (NIS 75 to 110) comes with two starters included in the price. There is at least one vegan option in each category.
There are also three Persian beverages (NIS 14 to 36), each of which may be made into a specialty cocktail by the addition of either arak or boukha, a spirit distilled from figs. The lemon and pomegranate soda, fortified with boukha and garnished with a geranium leaf, was potent and refreshing. The almond milk seemed less conducive to mixing with alcohol, and it was tasty on its own.
Our meal began with a large, quarter-loaf of Persian bread, served with a saucer of olive oil and a small bowl of fresh greens and radishes. If we weren’t careful, it would have been all too easy to fill up on the white, fluffy bread, good quality olive oil and extremely fresh greens.
The starters were actually mazettim – those familiar salads served at the beginning of every Middle Eastern meal – but like none we had ever had in Israel. Our favorite was the hash a naar, rice cooked with beets and flavored with pomegranate. We would have been happy to eat this delicious risotto as a main course.
A close second was the gondi meatballs, in a sauce redolent with dried fruits. It reminded me of Swedish meatballs, albeit a bit sweeter, and perked up with the unmistakable spice of cloves.
The most unusual starter was olives, pomegranate seeds and walnuts, all chopped up and mixed together like some weird haroset that had wandered off an alien Seder plate. It was a strange combination indeed, but it slowly grows on you.
The starter that was closest to what we Israelis are used to was a mashed baked eggplant dish that looked like the palest baba ganoush we had ever seen. It was also the most garlicky version you could possibly imagine, for fans of the potent bulb only.
Finally, we enjoyed a dip of sheep’s yogurt and pungent green herbs, which was excellent with the remaining Persian bread.
Of the five main courses, we selected one dish each of fish and meat. It was a no-brainer to order the Ghormeh Sabzi, one of Iran’s national dishes: a stew of beef and kidney beans with rice. The chewy beef was a bit fatty, but on the whole, the distinctively seasoned dish was hearty and satisfying.
The most complex dish was the sea bream in pomegranate syrup with green rice and a pesto of Persian lemon and tarragon. Both the perfectly cooked white fish fillets and the herbed rice with peas were enhanced beautifully by the memorable flavor of the unique lemon-tarragon condiment.
There are three desserts (NIS 32 to 42), but the choice of two was not difficult. First was the crême brulée with Persian “magic dust,” a sweet concoction with overtones of an indescribably exotic mélange of spices.
Last was the brioche with saffron, ricotta and pistachio. The pastry was a bit dry, and the traces of saffron and ricotta negligible, but it was greatly improved by dipping in the treacly pudding.
Sabzi Nights take place on alternate Sunday evenings at the flagship Beta Caffe in Ramat Aviv. There are plans to expand these Persian evenings to other restaurants in the chain in the future. While an English menu was not available on opening night, we were assured that there will be one.
The writer was a guest of the restaurant.
Beta Caffe. Not kosher. Brodetsky St. 17, Ramat Aviv. Tel. 1-700-700-937.