by Michelle Caswell
Aptly named after Persia's ancient dynastic center, Persepolis on Manhattan’s Upper East Side offers palatial servings of Persian fare that would satisfy even the most finicky emperor. “Persian food is the most sophisticated in the world,” says owner Kaz Bayati, a Tehran-native who attributes this sophistication to the 5,000 year old history of the Persian Empire, now known as modern day Iran. “In America, food takes 10 minutes to make, but in Iran it’s in our history for food to take all day long to prepare.” This commitment to slow, sophisticated fare shows through in all of Persepolis’s dishes, from delicately spiced dips to luscious honey-glazed desserts.
For starters, Persepolis’s scrumptious selection of appetizers steers clear of the typical Middle Eastern standards found in New York, offering refreshing salads and cooling yogurt dips in lieu of the typical tahini-based appetizers found in other restaurants. Iranian standards like baba, or eggplant dip, mix smoky chopped eggplant with mint and kashk, a sharp dried Iranian cheese. Borani, a sour homemade yogurt dish provides the perfect zing, especially when served on top of a generous slice of freshly-baked Central Asian flatbread. In addition to these dairy-based delicacies, Persepolis offers a wide selection of salads and pickles, including torshi, a delightful garlicky mixture of pickled carrots, celery and parsley.
But, least you forget, the kebabs are the real main attraction. The lemony marinated chicken kebab melts in your mouth, while the salmon kebab is perfect for a hearty, health-conscious dinner. Persepolis also specializes in traditional barg, or leaf, kebabs in which tender thin slices of filet mignon or lamb are arranged on a skewer like leaves on a branch. The meat is top-notch, a fact in which the owner takes great pride. “I’d rather eat a smaller high-quality kebab than a big kebab I can’t chew,” he quips. While meat is the primary focus, vegetarians need not be wary; the thick vegetarian stew provides a tasty meat-free alternative.
While rice is a basic staple in most Asian cultures, Persepolis takes rice to whole new level, offering three flavorful kinds of long grain basmati. The pink-hued sour cherry rice is the most popular, with a subtle sweet flavor interspersed with whole cherries. “People come from all around just to eat our cherry rice,” said the waiter. The green dill rice is also out of this world, providing a perfect accompaniment to the chicken kebab. For the less adventurous the yellow saffron rice is also perfectly spiced and thoroughly enjoyable.
“Try not to get fat,” the waiter advises, but looking at the dessert menu one realizes how futile this attempt would be. Persepolis boasts three kinds of honey-glazed pastries: baklava, bamieh and zolbis, all of which are great compliments to the spiced cardamom tea. However, if you’re looking for desserts unique to the Persian palate, the faaludeh is a unique fragrant treat made of rose water, crispy rice noodles, Persian ice and lemon juice. It’s the perfect finale to a Persian culinary journey.
Persepolis is located at 1407 Second Avenue, on the corner of 75th Street.