All photos by Scott Lynch
Oct 5, 2021
Sofreh Cafe brings Iranian tea culture to Bushwick
Breads, pastries, and endless amounts of tea take center stage at Nasim Alikhani and Ali Saboor's new cafe offshoot
Nasim Alikhani’s highly-regarded Prospect Heights Persian restaurant Sofreh has been packing them in since opening in 2018. Now, she’s teamed up with chef Ali Saboor to give back to their adopted Brooklyn community.
And what they’re giving, namely, is tea—lots and lots of tea—at Sofreh Cafe.
“The biggest motivation for starting Sofreh Cafe was our desire to share Iranian tea culture and all of the Iranian breads and specialty cookies and pastries that go along with it,” Saboor tells Brooklyn Magazine. “An Iranian breakfast is a piece of barbari bread and some tea and some feta and some herbs and some nuts–kind of our version of a farmer’s breakfast—and we wanted to introduce that here.”
Alikhani chimes in: “What really started this whole thing was our love of tea. We can drink 20 cups a day, easily. We first wanted to do something like this at Sofreh itself, to have the back deck as a lounge area where people can go after dinner and chill, have some tea, play some backgammon, hang out with their friends. This is our culture. We don’t eat and go home, we linger. Just saying goodbye takes an hour!”
Sofreh Cafe is a charming, multi-purpose spot on Varet Street right near the Morgan L, where you can get breakfast, lunch, snacks, something sweet, something savory, an early supper, and, of course, as many glasses of tea as you can handle. Nighttime hours are coming in early 2022, when Alikhani and Saboor open Eyval, a “youthful” Persian restaurant emphasizing open-fire cooking in the adjoining space on the corner, but until then there is enough going on here during the day to keep us happy.
For now, the tea at Sofreh Cafe is a main attraction. The base is “an awesome black tea from the mountains of India,” says Alikhani, “which we then infuse with our mix. I bring rose petals from Iran, imported in my suitcase–the rosewater of Iran is as famous as its saffron–and we add cardamom seeds (the actual pods), and cinnamon bark.” There’s a full coffee program at Sofreh Cafe, too.
On the savory side of things, Saboor’s marvelous Barbari Bread, which he perfected at Sofreh proper, is the baseline in the pastry case. The thickest of Iranian flatbreads, it has an almost pretzel-like crust on top, it’s soft and chewy inside, and it’s loaded with flavor, thanks in part to the sesame and nigella seeds. Get it with a crock of whipped feta, and/or some cherry jam.
Another solid choice is the Lebanese Ka’aK bread, with its thick sesame coating and a cute little “kaak hole” coming along for the ride. The soft Shirmal, or milk bread, is a good move if you want something a bit sweeter, but that can still handle some feta. Saboor will be rolling out specials from time to time, like his herb frittata, an eggy beauty with flavors both bright and earthy.
Sweet treats abound. Saffron raisin cookies, an Iranian childhood classic, can be had by the half dozen; there’s a sticky baklava, an also-sticky banana date loaf drizzled with tahini caramel, and pre-packed containers of Saboor’s rice pudding, redolent with saffron and cinnamon. The two desserts I tried were phenomenal, a messy rose custard donut, and a yazdi cupcake with rosewater buttercream that looks and tastes like a party.
The interior is bright and cheery thanks to Alikhani’s insistence that they put in a skylight which, in a nice added touch, is dripping with plantlife. A large communal table with a hodgepodge of squat, backless seats dominates the room, though you can also sit outside on the bench-like treebox if that’s more your style. There are a couple of backgammon sets available for those looking to linger.
“In Iran, people go from one round of tea to another,” says Alikhani. “They have breakfast tea and then a couple of hours later a little fruit and then lunch comes and tea after lunch and then in the afternoon you have a little snack and another tea, and from that point on the tea is on until you go to sleep, and it’s wonderful. That’s the bonding. That’s how we get to know one another, and form such strong family and friends connections. With Sofreh Cafe, we are trying to bring that here.”
Sofreh Cafe is located at 252 Varet Street, just west of Bogart Street, and is currently open Tuesday through Sunday from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
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