Shiraz Art Café draws upon the Iranian heritage to create delicate and subtle food that is laced with healing ingredients
Lewis Carroll's Alice went down the rabbit hole. Enid Blyton's Moonface went up the Faraway tree. Ulysses battled storms and sirens to seek exotica.
We simply drive down the East Coast Road.
Bustling with construction, cars and cows, ECR's chaotic till we reach Cholamandal Artists' Village. Suddenly, the only sound is the whisper of leaves. Ahead, dappled with sunlight, Shiraz Art Café lolls languidly, audaciously orange and glinting with large French windows. Tables topped with glass lanterns fan the building's brick courtyard, interrupted only by random granite installations.
Nasrin Karimi, owner/cook/hostess, bustles out of the kitchen wrapped in the lingering scent of saffron, bearing tall glasses of fresh pineapple, barley water and tulsi seeds, frozen together and crushed into a granita. “It's very good for you,” she smiles, offering us the pink guava version next, brightened with beetroot.
An inexorable inventor, Nasrin's style of cooking is evident from the outset. Drawing on her Iranian heritage, she works on creating balanced, subtle and delicate food ingeniously laced with healing ingredients. “I cater for the American school,” she says, discussing how she tricks the children into eating healthy. As we scoop up her indulgently creamy frozen carrot milkshake, she stage-whispers, “I don't tell the younger kids this is carrot. Then they finish it happily.” Her ploy failed just once. “I made a drink with tulsi seeds, and the kids told each other they were frogs' legs!”
We settle for lunch in a room bright with stained-glass paintings, created by Nazrin's husband Farhad. The meal begins with soup, traditionally Iranian with a nod to Atkins. It's a velvety blend of oats cooked in milk, bulked with dal and flavoured with fresh dill and dried mint leaves. “It's supposed to be made with rice, but everyone's on a diet now!” It's comfortingly luscious, especially once it's topped with a dollop of thick curd and squiggle of caramelly fried onion.
Although the café opened a few months ago, it's been moving forward cautiously. Right now, there are cakes and tea on offer through the day, besides Indian food. “Iranian food takes about four hours to cook,” says Nasrin, explaining why she offers it only on Sundays, when they host a large brunch.
While the flavours are sometimes bashful, making them admittedly difficult to appreciate immediately, there's a storybook charm to the food, reminding you of glossy children's tales of lands far, far away. After all, this is a genre created by wandering merchants and innovative mothers, taking into account the bounty of summer and nourishment necessary for biting winter nights.
Over a startlingly sweet roasted chicken, studded with orange peels and glistening plum sauce, teamed with fluffy dill rice, Farhad explains how Iranian menus change through the year. “In summer, we have an iced dish of yoghurt, raisins, walnuts, fresh cucumber.” He goes on to describe the haleem of winter. “As a child, I had to trudge though the snow to buy it… Then my mother would heat butter, add cinnamon and sugar till it sizzled and pour it over the haleem.”
It's just one example of how Iran uses dishes that are familiar, presenting them a completely different way. We eat cutlets, deliciously browned discs of minced chicken and onion. Also chicken wings, vivid with saffron, sweetened with oranges and soured with tomato. The gravies are accompanied by flat shards of crunchy rice, added to jazz up textures.
It takes a little concentration to appreciate the sophisticated play of flavours. This is not a style of food spice hounds will love instantly, despite the bowl of fried chillies Nasrin provides. The principal flavours are saffron, rose water and dried mint. Fruits, vegetables and meat are used together to create balanced meals in a single plate.
Think of it as a flying carpet to another world. Where valleys of roses are distilled into your food. Pomegranates from beside the Caspian Sea are pounded into a puree for meat. And fields of saffron travel across the world to stain your rice golden.
Shiraz is open from noon to 10 p.m. Sunday brunch costs Rs. 400 per head. Call Nasrin on 98405 72126 for reservations.
Keywords: Shiraz Art Café