x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Cafe Nadery: A taste of Tehran in New York

Cafe Nadery isn’t the first place to serve New Yorkers Persian food, but it’s the first to do so while prioritising a lively, intellectual atmosphere over financial profit.

Jewel Rice at Cafe Nadery in NYC. Courtesy Shohreh Dorudi
Jewel Rice at Cafe Nadery in NYC. Courtesy Shohreh Dorudi

On a recent Sunday afternoon in Cafe Nadery, the Iranian cafe and social space that opened last summer in New York’s Greenwich Village, young Iranian-Americans were perched at the bar, thumbing through their phones, reading, Skyping on iPads and drinking glasses of Persian tea (refills are just a dollar; Dh3.7). A table of middle-aged patrons laugh raucously; elsewhere a young family and a couple play backgammon. Conversation can be heard in at least three languages.

Nadery isn’t the first place to serve New Yorkers Persian food, but it’s the first to do so while prioritising a lively, intellectual atmosphere over financial profit. Taking inspiration from its Tehran namesake, an icon of Iranian coffee-house culture where philosophy and art would be chewed over by literary luminaries in the 1940s and 1950s, the cafe hosts events almost every night. These range from oud and kamancheh recitals to poetry nights, art exhibitions, football matches, discussions in Farsi and even the Super Bowl.

“We are not looking to get people inside and then get them out so the next person can come in,” says Nahzi Nikki, one of the 21-strong collective of shareholders who own the cafe. “Our philosophy is quite the opposite: to have a gathering place. That is why it will not necessarily be a huge business success, because that was never our aim. We are hoping to be a huge cultural success.”

In addition to the events, this means providing books, newspapers and magazines; having fast Wi-Fi connectivity, plenty of power outlets for laptops, and an online subscription to The New York Times; and making sure everyone feels welcome to linger.

The food is a sophisticated mix of Persian and American fare, with several wholesome vegetarian options. A beet burger with white cheddar and tamarind date chutney is popular, as is saffron ice cream and ash-e reshteh: a gumbo-style stew, fragrant with mint, fried onions, turmeric and the tangy, whey-like product kashk. A weekend brunch menu includes mimosas and medjool-date omelettes, while hand-blended tea comes in varieties that contain rose petals, cardamom, lavender and violets.

“Los Angeles has a lot of really good Persian food but New York really doesn’t,” says Robin Foroutan, a nutritionist who came to Nadery on a week night to eat at the bar and catch the Asghar Farhadi film A Separation, which was shown on two screens with English subtitles. “The restaurants that do exist are kind of formal.”

Her companion, Nima Deaivari, is a lawyer who has his parents’ names tattooed in Farsi on his inner wrists. “This place looked really cool,” he says. “It has a nice, neighbourhoody feel to it, and the food’s been really great. We’re coming back on Saturday, with another Persian friend.”

The head chef Shohreh Dorudi is the only member of the cafe’s 21 investors to have experience in the food industry. The rest are professionals, businesspeople and academics. What unites them, Nikki says, is that they are all Iranian-American, and they all believe in cultivating a community.

“When we come together at the cafe, we will do whatever is necessary,” she says. “We will wash the dishes, or clean, or be hosts, because we are doing this out of love.”

Whichever measure of success is used, Cafe Nadery seems to be thriving. It was given the seal of approval by the New Yorker magazine recently, and celebrities have even been spotted at its tables.

A few months ago, a diner snapped a photo of the actress Susan Sarandon eating at Nadery, and posted it to the cafe’s Facebook page. On seeing it, Nikki recalls with a cackle: “A chef asked the manager, ‘How come you didn’t tell me she was here? I would have made sure that everything was perfect.’ And the manager replied: ‘I didn’t know you would be interested. If you’re interested, Michael Douglas was here the week before.’”

artslife@thenational.ae