Brushland Eating House, an update on the traditional bed and breakfast, is tucked off the main road in the heart of Bovina, New York, a tiny farming town about three hours northwest of New York City. On a Saturday, 40 diners, ranging from locals to folks who made the drive from Brooklyn and Mt. Temper, sat for an unusual celebration at such a rustic locale: Nowruz, the start of the Persian New Year that takes place annually on the spring equinox.
What started as a once-a-year event has evolved into a monthly full moon celebration, a three-course, family-style meal at which chef Sohail Zandi — recently nominated as a semifinalist for a 2023 Best Chef: New York State James Beard Award — adapts dishes from his Iranian heritage and leans on the seasonal bounty that surrounds him in agriculturally rich Delaware County. The last of this month’s three sold-out dinners takes place Tuesday evening as the holiday wraps up. Ticket sales for the next full moon dinner are announced weeks in advance on Instagram and the website.
From its opening in 2014, Brushland Eating House, located in an unmarked 19th-century building with a restaurant and two upstairs apartments, has taken a journey from a seven-days-a-week restaurant to a three-day-a-week supper club with one seating a night. It’s where Zandi serves a menu steeped in seasonally-driven American cuisine he cooked in Brooklyn kitchens such as The Grocery and Prime Meats.
The Persian dinners are a monthly twist, having started as a Nowruz-only event after Zandi’s mother, Giti, approached him with what he deemed a not-so-great idea: She was thinking about getting into the restaurant business.
Mom eventually realized restaurant life was not her calling, but for Zandi, the American-born son of Iranian immigrants who left Iran in the late ’70s, the dinners were “a way to hang out with my mom, and cook the food I had grown up eating — and steal her recipes I guess.”
The experiment was more successful than they had anticipated: After five years, diners were hooked on the Persian meals, Zandi said, “and people kept asking for them more often.” So the full moon dinners were born last year when Zandi and his wife and co-owner Sara Zandi decided to overhaul the restaurant’s format. To Giti, the student was now the teacher.
“I mean, it surprises me how well he can do it,” she said. “I am not saying this because he’s my son. He’s an artist. He added his own touches, but it tastes the same.”
The newish format means that one weekend a month around the full moon, the menu takes its cues from Zandi’s childhood featuring Persian classics influenced by the restaurant’s focus on local meat, dairy, and produce. For Persian staples that he can’t find locally, Zandi heads to Paterson, NJ. On a recent Saturday, he made the rounds stopping at Fattal’s Syrian Bakery store for basics and Gandom Bakery for traditional Iranian breads.
Back at Brushland, doors open for a 6 p.m. cocktail hour, with drinks like a tamarind and Persian tea margarita. By 7, dinner begins: A classic kuku sabzi is reimagined as deviled eggs — beet-brine-pickled whites loaded with an herb-packed egg yolk mix and topped with sweet and sour barberries. The eggs arrive with sweet and sour olives tossed in pomegranate molasses, mint, and walnuts, then perfumed with a dusting of angelica.
No dish on the Nowruz menu may embody Giti’s cooking more than the ash reshteh, a warming thick stew, tinged green with herbs and loaded with legumes and linguini-like noodles.
Zandi often calls his mother ahead of the dinners. This time he was concerned the ash reshteh needed acid. “I know some stews she finishes with lemon,” but she told him, “no you don’t finish that one with lemon.” Some people finish it with kashk, a farmer’s yogurt, or vinegar, she told him. The soup arrived with a dollop of kashk and mint oil, a one-two punch of brightness.
“I want it to taste like a memory,” Zandi says. “I try and make it nice, but I don’t want it to taste different.”
Fish is a Nowruz must. A classic fried fish with lemon and saffron becomes whole local trout marinated in saffron and lemon, poached, topped with a saffron beurre blanc and dressed in herbs. To serve, Zandi heads to the restaurant’s mercantile bar with a heaping tray of tahdig, the crisp bottomed rice that is arguably a right of passage for any Persian chef. Out come the cameras as he deconstructs the crust.
At some point during the meal, Zandi’s wife Sara shows up carrying their girls, a nine-month old asleep in a baby carrier and a two-year-old in her arms. Zandi takes the older one and works the dining room, connecting with diners as he delivers dishes from the open kitchen.
A visit to the restaurant is a four-hour respite from city life. Cell phone service drops well before arriving and the only connection to the outside world is through the restaurant’s WiFi.
Many diners have driven 30 minutes or more, but most are not in a hurry. “I had seen that on Instagram they were opening for the season,” said Nishiel Patel who, along with her partner, Paul Christophe, had driven from Bedford-Stuyvesant for the dinner.
Toward the end, past the olive-oil cake with feta-infused whipped cream, pistachios and Cara Caras, the evening reaches its peak: Music switches from 1970s soul to Persian beats.
A young man who is a regular begins dancing, and his partner joins. He announces, “who wants tequila,” as Zandi hands him a chilled bottle and a tray of shot glasses.
As the night wanes, Zandi walks the room with a thick hardbound book of poetry from mystical 13th-century Persian poet Hafez that he says his mother gave him. Everyone is instructed to grab one of the folded fortunes tucked into pages.
Mine reads, “You yourself are your own obstacle. Rise above yourself,” and is signed “Hafez.” This is one Zandi and Sara have taken to heart.