It’s a bit of a cop-out to start with a caveat, but this one’s important: Iranian food is best enjoyed when cooked at home, not in a restaurant. Everyone I met in Tehran assured me that my quest for Persian culinary perfection was doomed to failure if I restricted the search to the city’s eateries. Alas, nobody followed up this observation by inviting me home to dinner. I live in the hope that will happen the next time I come to Iran.
That said, I did eat well in Iran, better than in any other single country in the Middle East. Here, after careful consideration, are my favorites:
Kashk-e Badamjan at Hani, Tehran
I was skeptical about Hani: It is a buffet restaurant, and those aren’t known for great food. But I was lured here with the promise of dishes from Iran’s many regional cuisines. This was far and away the best: a creamy dip made from eggplants, yoghurt, fried onions, garlic and whey.
It’s all about the texture: the crunch of the fried onions mixing in with the swirl of the whey and eggplant. I’m looking forward to making it at home in New York, from this recipe.
The broth at Dizi, Tehran
This is a restaurant that makes only one dish, and is named after it. Dizi, also known as aabghusht, is made by slow-cooking lamb, chickpeas, white beans, potatoes, dried limes, tomatoes, and turmeric. The solids are then removed and mashed into the consistency of hummus. The broth, intensely flavored and piping hot, is eaten with pieces of bread.
Here’s a video of how it’s done:
Parvardeh olives at Shahrzad, Isfahan
In 15 years of travel through the Middle East, I’ve eaten every kind of olive in every kind of preparation—but this is the best I’ve ever had. The green olives are marinated in pomegranate paste, crushed walnuts, garlic, and an assortment of herbs. The result is a wonderful burst of flavors in the mouth. I had this in several restaurants, and they were all excellent. Shahrzad’s was the best by a small margin.
Shashlik at Shandiz, Tehran
Russians, Georgians, Azeris and Iranians all claim shashlik as their own, and I’m not qualified to judge its parentage. But I can vouch for the version served at this wildly popular Tehran restaurant. The lamb is perfect—slightly burnt on the outside, and juicy on the inside.
Barg kebab at Nayeb, Tehran
Barg kebab is an Iranian staple, and my personal favorite is served at Persepolis, on New York’s Upper East Side. But this was a close second.
Kalle pache at Nehat, Tehran
Not for the weak of stomach, this is a dish is made from cooking sheeps’ heads and trotters for several hours. Restaurants that specialize in kalle pache offer customers a choice of different parts of the head—brains, tongue, eyeballs, the works. It’s not pretty, but makes for great brunch.
Don’t scroll down any further if you’re squeamish.
I did warn you, didn’t I?