After years of chopping onions and seating customers at his aunt’s Persian restaurant in Aliso Viejo, California, a teenage Ali Saboor swore he’d never work in a kitchen again. But if you can take the chef out of the kitchen, you can never take the kitchen out of the chef.
For about twenty years, Saboor has been back in the kitchen. His most recent endeavor is the well–reviewed Eyval (located at 25 Bogart Street), though he says it isn’t a true return to his Californian-Iranian roots.
Even before his work adapting the cooking of Nasim Alikhani for the menu at Sofreh, a place in Prospect Heights, Saboor say he frequently found ways to incorporate touches of Persian food culture in his cooking.
“You always sneak the dishes onto your menus and other places, you know, with a little bit of barberries here or a little bit of herb sauce there — the ingredients you’re familiar with,” Saboor says.
Last year, Alikhani hired Saboor to open the Sofreh Café last year, a relatively short-lived experiment in bringing Persian tea culture to Bushwick. In the end, he says, the café concept just didn’t feel worthwhile.
“We would wake up every morning and make like twenty things from scratch and the labor was just insane,” Saboor says, noting that tea houses tend to work better in areas with consistently high levels of foot traffic. “We would get great weekends, you know, the weekends were wonderful, but you can’t sustain the business on Saturday and Sunday mornings.”
Saboor then reworked that idea to cater to the dinner crowd and Eyval was born, opened in the same space once occupied by the café.
He now paints Eyval as not just a Persian eatery, but a general destination for a rich food culture that arguably remains underrepresented in New York.
“[Eyval] is about introducing people who haven’t had Persian food to Persian food for the first time, but it is also about introducing Iranians to a different way to look at their food and a different way to eat it, asking what those ingredients mean to them,” Saboor says.
“Like could I put zereshk – which [are] barberries – on something that wouldn’t traditionally have it? Could I use the sauces in a different way?”
Persian cuisine is built on the foundation of – to borrow Saboor’s phrasing – a “beautiful pantry” that features a huge range of influences from across Middle East and beyond and that includes ingredients like omani limes, fenugreek or kashk, the latter a dairy product akin to a thicker, richer yogurt or sour cream.
He speaks highly of all of them.
“Kashk is beautiful,” Saboor says. “It’s like the closest thing we have to that umami flavor you get in Japanese dishes with miso,” he says. “When I open a bag of limon omani all these ideas pop into my head,” he adds. “If you put the right touch, fenugreek really just pops and ties the dish together.”
The menu at Eyval is intentionally centered around small plates, he adds.
“We want you to go through all these flavor profiles from the north of Iran, from the south of Iran and from my take on things — my vision of Persian food,” Saboor says.
A recent trip to Iran — Saboor’s first time back in the country since his family immigrated to the U.S. in the 1990s — reinforced his drive to experiment with the potential of Persian cuisine. Even with Western sanctions stifling the nation’s economic growth, Iranian culture pushes on, he says.
“When it comes to food, they haven’t had the same chances and bounty that lets us try new things and push new things. Still, you see these little inspirations here and there,” Saboor says.
Still, the professionally-trained chef in Saboor stops him from taking his experimenting too far or too fast.
“I can’t do the… there’s a macaroni tahdig that’s popular in Iran, and I would eat that as a kid. You cook pasta, put it in a pot with tomato sauce and let it crisp up like a tahdig,” he says, referring to the toasted crust commonly made when cooking Persian-style rice.
“I loved it as a kid, but having worked for Italian chefs, you know, I can’t get myself to do that to pasta. It’s, like, sacrilegious to do that to pasta. There are these little things that you hold in your head, you know? Like, I can’t cook a piece of meat well done. I don’t want to kill the poor beef — it’s already dead!”
Eyval is located at 25 Bogart Street, near the Morgan Avenue L stop. The restaurant’s hours are 6pm to 10pm, Tuesday through Sunday. Make a reservation here.
Top image by Andrew Karpan
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