To spend a few languorous hours at Sofreh Cafe means to inhale the scent of fresh roses — even amid the absence of any noticeable floral arrangements in the minimalist Bushwick space. Partners Ali Saboor and Nasim Alikhani, who opened this airy Persian counter service spot in September as a sequel to their acclaimed Prospect Heights restaurant, package the aroma in varying forms and strengths throughout their menu, not dissimilar to the way a good barbecue pitmaster might calibrate smoke. That is to say: They use rose to accentuate and awaken the senses, rather than to overwhelm.
Saboor garnishes Yazidi cupcakes with crushed rose petals, adding just a hint of fragrance to the frosting-laden dessert. He then dials up that aroma with a saffron rice pudding; the rose hits hard at first, like the perfume counter at Bloomingdales, but then, poof, it’s gone. It appears again in a thimble-sized marzipan cookie, where the bouquet is as sweet and long-lasting as a Ladurée macaron. And in a container of squash halva, a rust-colored paste with a vegetal tang, the chef deploys rose water in a way that’s pleasantly astringent and medicinal, as if a botanist and a beautician found a way to make lipstick edible — and delicious.
The importance of rose in Iranian cuisine and culture can’t be understated. Scores of visitors flock to Qamsar in Isfahan Province every year to celebrate the harvest of the damask rose, or gole Mohammadi, the flower of the prophet. It’s quite literally the first ingredient cookbook author Louisa Shafia uses to convey the country’s foodways in The New Persian Kitchen. “You are in a lush, blooming garden, and a deep breath brings the honeyed fragrance of roses to your nose,” the author writes, before going on to mention pistachios, almonds, walnuts, sour cherries, and pomegranates. Or as the counter worker at Sofreh Cafe told me somewhat bluntly, “pretty much everything has rose here.” Rightly so, because each of these dishes wouldn’t quite taste the same without it.
When contemplating contemporary Persian fare in New York, it’s hard to think of anyone doing more compelling work than Alikhani and Saboor. When the duo opened Sofreh in the summer of 2018, they brought a style of cooking — imagine: sea scallops with walnut and pomegranate sauce — not typically found in the more kebab-centric spots scattered throughout the five boroughs and Long Island’s North Shore.
Now, with Sofreh Cafe, Alikhani and Saboor have given locals a rare modern Iranian bakery and tea shop, a welcome analogue to the city’s patisseries and Italian sweets shops, and an airy space with perhaps the longest blonde wood communal table outside of an Apple store. Sometime in the new year, the duo will open a live fire restaurant, Eyval, next door. For now, however, sharply-dressed folks fill up the cafe space, nibbling on Yazidi cupcakes, chatting about labor activism, and drinking black tea in short glasses laced with rose petals and cinnamon.
The cinnamon gives the not-too-astringent brew a low-level sweetness, while the rose remains almost undetectable. True to the nature of a place where one could spend the entire day typing away on a MacBook, the owners offer free refills.
Smart diners will pair their tea with pirashki, a relative of Russian pirozhki. They’re the type of savory pastries one might encounter in Glendale, Westwood, and other parts of Los Angeles County known as Little Persia or Tehranagles, a part of the country with a much deeper breadth of Persian cuisine than the five boroughs. Indeed, California is home to the largest population of Iranians in the U.S., followed by New York and the Washington D.C. metropolitan area.
At Sofreh Cafe, the chubby pirashki take the form of baseball-sized rounds of soft, doughy bread surrounding a brisket or mushroom core. Both are superb. Fungi spill out of the vegetarian bun when split open, but the sweetness of the ’shrooms quickly gives way to an umami-charged bitterness, thanks to a tangle of kale, a bit of feta, and a few crunchy walnuts. The meat version is excellent too: the braised beef yields to a gentle chew, while sweet onions scream with the heady scents of cumin and mint.
Saboor also makes a fantastic nan-e barbari, cold fermenting the classic Persian flatbread for three days, baking it at 70 percent hydration, and dotting the glazed topside with nutty sesame and nigella seeds. Patrons tear apart the warm, feathery bread and smear it with strategic doses of salty whipped feta and sour cherry jam. Pair it with an espresso or tea and there’s your official light breakfast of 2021, an Iranian counterpart of sorts to the more Continental-leaning coffee with toast and jam.
Sofreh’s rice pudding, or sholeh zard, is a proper way to start one’s day as well. The saffron imbues the porridge with a hue of yellow so bright it suggests lemon curd forged from radioactive yolks, while the slurpable texture channels good congee. Saboor keeps the sweetness in check too, allowing for the rose and cinnamon flavors to shine without too much distraction.
Do not, by any means, sleep on the custard-filled doughnut, a common snack in Iran, where it’s known as a pirashki as well. Saboor delivers a phenomenally light pastry that packs the yeastiness of a good zeppole, with a messy filling that tastes more like a silky sweetened cheese than a cloying pudding. But after a few bites something even more exciting happens. The rose hits you again. This one is restrained, however; the scent recalls a spray of cologne on a postcard from years ago.
New York is currently undergoing an artisanal doughnut renaissance of sorts, thanks in no small part to sugary and sometimes viral specimens from Wildair, Yellow Rose, and Ursula. The rose doughnuts here belong in that same group of high performing sweets, just as Sofreh Cafe represents a vital new addition to the city’s bakery scene.