Summertime is skewer time: That’s the rule. It’s a season that gives us cause to watch as rendered animal fats drip over live coals, spewing flames and musky perfumes. Most New York skewer spots champion the natural flavors of the meat, with chefs adding little more than salt, pepper, cumin, soy, or wasabi. One thinks of our expensive yakitori parlors, Uzbek and Georgian shashlik joints, or purveyors of Middle Eastern kebabs. The product in question is typically meat on a stick, a simple, straightforward analog to the frozen fruit popsicle you’ll seek later to cool your insides.
When it comes to skewers, chef Ali Saboor, formerly at Sofreh in Prospect Heights, has opened something very different with Eyval. He says the Bushwick spot is partly inspired by the jigar stands of Iran, places where vendors grill sheep’s liver over charcoal, but the fuller explanation is that Eyval looks like what would happen if a fine dining chef turned traditional kebabs into complicated, creative, social-media-friendly small plates.
Imagine: ghalieh mahi, the herbed fish dish of Southwest Iran, but prepared with wood-fired scallops in an edgy tamarind squid ink sauce. The pitch-black potion packs the sour punch of a Warhead and, thanks to red dots of chile puree, the wild heat of a Buffalo wing. Despite aggressive flavors, the mollusks still flaunt the type of powerfully sweet, briny, layered perfume you’d expect from a three Michelin-starred scallop, a creature that grew up snacking on beluga caviar in the Caspian Sea.
The chefs, incidentally, remove the actual skewers before serving, which is good if you harbor a fear of impalement.
One wouldn’t have blamed Saboor for going the simple, straightforward route. Local Iranian restaurants almost universally exalt a lean and elegant approach to kebab making. That translates to a standard array of marinated beef, chicken, steak, and lamb kebabs. It’s all quite delicious, if somewhat uniform. Eyval prefers to be delicious in a fussier way — to create a place where smoke and ash kiss each dish like an imperceptible seasoning, rather than dominating it.
He lets trumpet mushroom kebabs, as bronzed as roast turkey, mingle with pickled beechwood fungi over creamed lentils with fenugreek. The fungi flaunt a toasty aroma and a wobbly, meaty texture — think prime rib, but woodsier — while the beechwoods and legumes provide notes of tartness and sweet earth.
Saboor isn’t the only one doing this sort of thing. All the intricate tweaks put Eyval in a small but growing class of local live-fire skewer spots that prefer to play around with creative saucing, foaming, plating, and garnishing. Fellow members of this renegade group include Maison Yaki in Prospect Heights (scallops with sauce maltaise!) and Kochi in Hell’s Kitchen (monkfish with tomato gochujang!).
Those who’ve sampled Saboor’s fare before could’ve predicted this. When he opened Sofreh in a Prospect Heights townhouse with Nasim Alikhani, he helped build a restaurant that expanded New York’s view of Iranian food beyond traditional grilled meats and herbal stews, instead serving up a more homestyle and vegetable-forward approach to Persian cooking. He and Alikhani followed up with the short-lived Sofreh Cafe, which offered the types of rose-scented pastries, breads, and tea service that one might encounter in Los Angeles, a city that boasts a much larger Iranian population than New York.
Part of the goal of Eyval, which expanded into the now-shuttered Sofreh Cafe space, is to highlight the regional diversity of Iranian fare. In a nod to Southern Iran, the kitchen slathers cool Persian cucumbers in so much date molasses they appear as if they’ve been covered in charcoal.
Still, the other half of Eyval’s equation is that Saboor is a New York chef who can cook kebabs like few others. With octopus, Saboor braises the tentacles, glazes them in garlic chile, then crisps them gently over the fire. A layer of nutty tahini underneath helps soften the oceanic tang of the cephalopod, while the glaze imparts a subtle smokiness. Or consider the chicken kebabs, which the chef uses as an excuse for an avant-garde take on zereshk polo. The dish often involves a whole bird cooked in an onion-laced tomato puree; Saboor instead torches knobs of thigh meat, fanning out the bites in a half moon over the dish’s signature sauce. The fowl is crisp with a pronounced smokiness, while the puree zings the palate with a sweet-sour punch.
Eyval’s lamb ribs aren’t technically kebabs the way you might find them in an Uzbek spot like Cheburechnaya in Rego Park, but it would be a shame not to mention them. The kitchen coats the ribs in a tamarind-date glaze and a smattering of walnut; the fruit tames the grassy, fatty meat, as the nuts seem to fuse with the sweetness of the flesh.
And if that’s all too exciting, Eyval’s koobideh beef and lamb kebab is pretty much a classic take: juicy meat over pillowy rice. Only here, the rice has more rose than the perfume section at Macy’s.
Saboor says he’s eventually planning a late-night menu, perhaps with a rustic dish like grilled liver with beef hearts and onions. For now, however, I’ll say this: Not since a 2013 meal at Saison in San Francisco — a venue that now holds two Michelin stars — have I encountered a more nuanced deployment of wood-fire cooking. And while Saison can easily run over $500, one can swing by Eyval, watch a concert by an exiled Iranian pop star projected onto the wall, and spend about $100 on some of the city’s best kebabs.