When I arrived at Sofreh Cafe on Varet Street, owner Nasim Alikhani was making small chickpea cardamom sweets while she compared recipes with an Iranian grandmother on the other side of the counter. The grandmother lamented the lack of chickpea flour back home in Utah.
At a communal table in the center of the cafe, a couple played backgammon on an ornate board. The sounds of customers conversing in English and Farsi filled the space. I ordered a tea, and the barista held it up to the light to check its color.
“You’re looking for clarity,” he told me. “You’re looking for the amber color. As the tea is poured for customers, you’re refilling the kettle. To, kind of, predict the strength of the tea is something that I’m learning from Nasim.”
The walls of Sofreh Cafe are exposed brick covered in spotty white paint, and plants hang from a skylight in the ceiling. The bathroom walls are papered with Iranian ads from the 70s. Everything has a simplicity to it, while still managing to seem intentional. The cafe is atmospheric but also somehow cozy. The layout and communal seating system forces people into conversation with each other, making the cafe a dynamic meeting place.
“If you look at the design of coffee shops in Iran, it is mind-boggling,” Alikhani told me. “I’ll show people pictures, and they say ‘where is this? Amsterdam?’”
“Iran has been demonized, has been portrayed in a very monolithic way,” she continued. “I just want to show the way Iran was and still is. There are so many languages, so many cultures within Iran. It is so modern at the same time. I want to try not only to show the culture here of what Iran currently is, but I also want to connect it to the past, to the past I know.”
The Iranian style is dignified. It is simple in its ornamentation but has a striking beauty. Sofreh Cafe captures this. Sitting in the cafe, you feel a bit like you are in the country.
In addition to the cafe, Alikhani and her partner Ali Saboor, who is the head chef at Sofreh’s famed Prospect Heights restaurant, are opening a new full-service restaurant next door, with a slightly different take than the place in Prospect Heights. This is apparently how the idea for the cafe emerged, as there was extra space in the new restaurant that could be used for something different.
Below the cafe is the bakery, and Alikhani told me that the new restaurant, named EYVAL, will have a greater focus on breads. Sofreh Cafe serves many of these breads, and its fermented barbari bread is one of its specialities.
The barabari bread is firm but chewy. It is sprinkled with sesame and nigella seeds. The nigella seeds are not traditional in the Iranian recipe, as I was told by Saboor, but they give the bread a slight herbal spiciness that complements the texture.
While Sofreh Cafe serves the standard roster of coffee drinks, the cafe’s real specialty is tea. Sofreh Cafe’s tea is a dark brownish-red and served, ideally, without milk in a small glass cup and saucer.
“While you can find great coffee shops in New York, Iran has a tea culture. You never enter somewhere in Iran and get tea to go. It is like blasphemy almost. Even in a busy Tehran day, people sit down.”
The tea has a deep color, but the flavor is light, with a slight astringent bitterness and a smooth body. It is made with black tea, rose petals, cinnamon and cardamom, among other spices. The flavor is, like the cafe itself, subtle and understated. But the tea is addictive, and I drank several cups on my visit.
Many of Sofreh Cafe’s sweets, including its custard donut, are made with rose-petals. Alikhani told me that while many of the ingredients come from an Iranian supplier, she often brings the rose petals back from Iran “in a suitcase.”
“We encourage people to take time for their tea, to sit with their friends, to take time with their sweets. Here is not Midtown Manhattan, where everyone is running. Here, people are artists. It’s a community. I’m hoping people come and say ‘Let’s go for a cup of tea’.”
The ideal compliments for the tea are small cookies and sweets that are made with several different types of flour, each with a highly specific taste and texture. Many are vegan. The fresh-baked barbari bread can be complemented with jam, butter or a whipped feta cheese.
Alikhani and Saboor picked Bushwick for Sofreh Cafe and the new restaurant EYVAL because of the diversity of the neighborhood. They said they want a younger, artsier feel for EYVAL and a menu grounded in traditional Iranian cuisine but with modern interpretations.
The space for EYVAL is not yet finished. As I walked through it down to the kitchen, I noticed below me a floor of dark turquoise tile, contrasting the white tile walls.
In the bakery, Saboor was pulling fresh baked bread from the oven. The new space, he said, would focus more on these breads and light-fire cooking. Saboor grew up in the States and has cooked classic Italian food, American food and barbeque, but he is now cooking recipes he grew up with. His aunt owned an Iranian restaurant in Orange County, California, which was where he started cooking.
“When I got out, I told myself I’d never work in a restaurant again, but here I am.”
Saboor offered me a beef piroshki and told me that Iranian cuisine is heavily influenced by Russian cuisine and food from the Caspian region. Growing up, he said, his mom’s beef stroganoff was one of his favorite things.
Sofreh Cafe is a great place to spend an afternoon or morning. The baked goods are made with clear precision and attention to detail, and their flavors are subtle but impactful. What really struck me was the multicultural and communal vibe of the place, which became quickly apparent upon entering. It was in line with Alikhani’s and Saboor’s explanation of their vision, a place where people can come together to take time out from their busy lives, connect with friends and enjoy the rich culture of Iran.
Sofreh Cafe is located at 252 Varet St. off the Jefferson L Stop.
All Images: Guthrie London
For more news, sign up for Bushwick Daily’s newsletter.
Join the fight to save local journalism by becoming a paid subscriber.