Persia was undoubtedly one of the first countries to cultivate grapes for the purposes of making wine. And, as the story goes, Crusaders carried a grape from the city of Shiraz back to France in the 13th century, where it became known as Syrah (though genetic studies question this). In modern times, a similar grape called Shiraz has been cultivated worldwide, burnishing the idea that wine and Persia, now known as Iran, continue to be closely associated. Another reminder is a new Chelsea restaurant and wine bar, Shiraz Kitchen, named after the grape. Note that no wine has been legally produced in Iran since the 1979 revolution — though its wine industry flourishes in exile.
So why not an Iranian wine bar? That’s just what Reza Parhizkaran thought when he opened one next to his Elmsford, New York, Iranian restaurant in 2019. In October 2020, he brought the concept to Chelsea, opening another location of Shiraz Kitchen, this time incorporating both wine bar and restaurant into a single storefront. Two rows of tables clad in white linen trail deep into an austere white interior, down a couple of steps from street level and restrainedly decorated with color photos.
A couple of friends and I visited on a recent summer evening, and sat in a well-ventilated white shed that stands by the curb. Scanning the 120-bottle wine list, we found much to admire. First, we looked for vineyards that we believed may be managed by Iranian exiles, and we found Darioush and Mithra, both distinguished Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon producers, and confirmed it with a quick Google search. There were plenty of other cabs, too, along with further West Coast wines identified by grape varietal.
A Syrah selection came mainly from California with a single Shiraz from Australia. Neither were the French and Italian wine producers neglected, with bottles of Brunello, Barolo, Burgundy, and Rhone wines (some made at least partly with Syrah). As with most wine bars, reds dominated, though white sparklings were abundant. Atypically for the city’s wine bars, only two rosés graced the list, both from Provence, which is famous for its rosés.
Priced at $12 to $16, 12 wines are available by the glass. The bottles range from $45 (for an Italian Pinot Grigio) to $490 (for a 2015 Opus One from Napa Valley), with markups more modest than most wine lists. But what immediately attracted us was the daily bargain bottle selection of three not on the regular list — in this case a red, white, and sparkling rosé.
Being in a festive summery mood, we picked the Domaine Carneros Brut Rosé, a bubbly pink wine made in California by French champagne producer Taittinger from a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, which set us back only $50 (it often retails in wine stores for $40 or so). Then we dived into the smaller plates, which constitute two-thirds of the menu, as befits a wine bar, and the ancient Persian tradition of snacks to go with wine. To our delight, the dolmeh, five to an order ($9), were served warm. The pickled grape leaves contained a mixture of long-grain rice and herbs, dominated by dill.
We were glad the Brut Rosé was very dry as we tucked into a plate of jumbo dates carefully stuffed with planks of feta cheese and a single walnut. “This is too sweet,” a friend said, wrinkling up his nose, though the salty cheese and sweet date seemed a good combo to me. A Shirazi salad of cucumber, tomato, and purple onion cut into a miniature dice came with a dressing of lemon and mint, two strong flavors delightfully melded with olive oil.
But best of all was mast-o-bademjan ($9), eggplant fried in slices, with a piped-on topping of herb-flavored yogurt that made it look like a savory birthday cake. Indeed, eggplants are something of a signature of Iranian cuisine, making major appearances in four dishes at Shiraz Kitchen.
Alas, most of the apps are served with pocket pitas of an undistinguished sort, which perform their function but taste cardboard-y on their own. Please, Shiraz Kitchen, better flatbreads! It’s a different story where rice is concerned. Every entrée — which falls into two categories: grills and stews — comes with a delectable form of Persian rice (most often saffron basmati), but for an extra charge of $4 to $6, you can get one of four composed rice dishes as a supplement. The one I liked best was flavored with orange peels and dotted with pistachios and almonds, but others involve fava beans, lima beans, sour cherries, and barberries (a berry native to Iran that tastes like a tart currant).
Our three entrees included a platter of grilled chicken and lamb chops, which arrive pretty much blackened but still flavorful and moist, and a dish of beef meatballs in a thick pomegranate sauce that was more mellow than sweet or tart, conferring a reddish color to the brown gravy. This dish, known as fesenjoon, is more often made with chicken. Best of all was a magnificent lamb shank ($25) with richly textured flesh that came heaped with sauteed red peppers and onions, and a thin gravy that we didn’t know what to do with — until we dumped in on the rice.
Of the desserts, one stands out: halvah and ice cream ($10). Crumbly pistachio halvah — a dessert that may have originated in Persia as early as the 7th century — crumbles around the plate, while standing upright are bright orange obelisks of saffron ice cream, eaten by coating spoonfuls of ice cream with halvah. Really, I can think of no better dessert to go with the last sips of a bottle of wine.