Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Takht-e Tavoos: Fabulous Persian Cuisine on College

Takht-e Tavoos is the latest venture from Alireza Fakhrashrafi and Danielle Schrage, the husband and wife team responsible for The Pomegranate and Sheherzade Dizi & Grill at College and Bathurst. Fakhrashrafi first settled in Montreal then moved to Ontario to study environmental sciences at U of T. While he always hoped that he would be able to return to Iran one day, he met Danielle Schrage in 1992 and fell in love. They married a year later. The father of two worked as an immigration consultant and published a monthly magazine, but his friends encouraged the talented cook to open a restaurant. So, in 2002, Fakhrashrafi and Schrage opened The Pomegranate, concentrating on Persian home-style cooking. "In Iran, most restaurants focus on kebabs. Home-style food is a totally different universe. You never see it on the streets." 

Alireza Fakhrashrafi and Danielle Schrage photo: Shlomi Amiga

In 2008, the couple opened a sister restaurant next-door called Sheherzade, which specializes in grilled foods and clay pot cooking. He tore down the wall between the kitchens, easing the grind of a two-restaurant chef. "I do two hours of work here, then two hours of work there. It’s fun for me." The third venture is Takht-e Tavoos on College Street, open from 10:00am to 4:00pm only, and serves sumptuous brunch and lunch specialties, from various regions of Iran. And Ali still does all the prep! A dinner menu is in the works.

Local Toronto painter Roxanne Ignatius created the cedar-tree border 
along the wall in the front room

The decor of Takht-e Tavoos, which means "Peacock Throne," a reference to Iran's historic Persian rulers, displays all the lively turquoise, walnut-gold, amethyst, moonstone green, and royal blue colours that adorn a peacock crest. A local Toronto artist was commissioned to paint a colourful mural of Iran-native cedars which encloses the dining area, flanked above by imported lanterns, mirrored tiles and clay pots that Fakhrashrafi and Schrage imported from Iran. But for a perfect Persian experience, the obvious highlight is the inclusion of 2 'teencheh', or nook raised seating platforms in the back, adorned with 'takht' rugs, mimicking those found in markets — the ideal spot to enjoy our sumptuous lunch.

The interior of Takht-e Tavoos

A flotilla of teapots grace the bar at Tavoos

For the pure Persian experience, we sat at the semi-private "takht", 
a carpeted seating platform with padded backrest and plump pillows

The vibrant Persian cuisine at Takht-e Tavoos includes specialties like Kalleh Pacheh, a soup made from sheep’s head and hooves, and Haleem, porridge made from wheat berries with shredded lamb. At breakfast, there’s a range of egg-based dishes like Guisavah served with Persian flat bread and a cup of Persian tea or fresh coffee, and for lunch, there are various meze appetizers and Dizi Sangi, a stone pot stew. Fragrant bergamot-scented Persian tea is brewed in a samovar as well as Turkish coffee, which is boiled in a traditional ibrik pot with sugar and cardamom.

Even water is treated with a sense of occasion, arriving on a small silver tray

Takht-e Tavoos brunch & lunch menu

We began our lunch with two glasses of aromatic Persian tea, which arrived in style on a silver tray with a bowl of sugar cubes. "Every home has their own style," says Schrage. "You serve it in a glass, and drink it with the sugar in your mouth, with no milk." Not having much of a sweet tooth, I forgot the sugar and enjoyed the tea on it's own. The intoxicating fragrance of fresh cardamom was extraordinarily refreshing and flavourful. Our server informed us that the tea is purchased as a concentrate then brewed to taste, with the addition of fresh cardamom added for maximum impact. It was excellent.

Persian samovar-brewed black Chai tea with cardamom, served in a glass 
and meant to be enjoyed with a sugar cube in your mouth

As an appetizer or meze, we decided on Mushroom Parvardeh, a purée of mushrooms, walnuts and garlic garnished with fresh mint, pomegranate molasses and zereshk, also known as Persian barberries. Served with warm Persian flatbread, and quite addictive in it's own right, the dip was like a nutty pesto but with delicate sweet and sour quality due to the pomegranate and tangy barberries. 

Mushroom Parvardeh, a purée of mushrooms, walnuts and garlic garnished with fresh mint, pomegranate molasses and zereshk (Persian barberries)

Persian flatbread, warm and addictive, is served with the Parvardeh

Tavoos’s specialty dishes are the standouts. For entrees, we ordered the Dizi Sanghi and Kaleh Pacheh. Dizi is one of the most popular dishes in Iran, is served in that tall stone pot, is the most complex and visually appealing of Tavoos’s heavier dishes. The stew is a two-part meal, with the broth decanted into a soup bowl, and the lamb and vegetables in the dizi pot. It all comes on a silver platter, with a long, metal pestle that’s used to mash the stew. The stew, once it’s mashed, is spooned onto the flatbread, with yogurt and pickled vegetables. The soup is sopped up with little bits of flatbread. The broth is meaty, thick with starch from chickpeas and white beans, with accents of bright-flavoured lime and turmeric and is absolutely delicious.

Dizi Sanghi, a stew that is a two part meal with the broth decanted into a soup bowl, 
and the lamb and vegetables in the dizi pot

Yoghurt garnished with rose petals and mint

A sheep soup, called Kaleh Pacheh, is perhaps the simplest and most authentic of them all. Kaleh Pacheh is breakfast food around Iran, lightly seasoned and often served in small specialist restaurants that open at dawn and close before 8:00am. It's commonly, but not always, served with whole sheep’s heads, with an option of ordering extra parts such as cheek, brain or eyes. There's some debate among Iranians as to whether it's best served with or without the eyeballs. At Tavoos, the soup is made with the tongues, a bit of mashed brain, cheeks and sheep’s hooves only. Chef Ali says he hopes to be able to offer a menu of extra parts in future. Count me out!

Kalleh Pacheh, a true Persian delicacy made from sheep’s head, hooves, mashed brain and tongue served in a broth with Persian flatbread and pickled garlic

For dessert we couldn't resist the Sholehzard, a chilled Persian saffron rice pudding topped with pistachios, almonds and cinnamon. Wonderfully vibrant with splashes of nutty aromatic accents, the pudding was the perfect end to a wonderful meal. Another pot of Persian chai tea, and we were on our way, with plans to return but also try Pomegranate and Sheherzade, and explore more of the phenomenal flavours of Ali and Danielle's modern persian cuisine. 

Sholehzard, a chilled Persian saffron rice pudding topped with pistachios, almonds and cinnamon

The Persian tea is wonderfully fragrant and full of fabulous flavour 
with cardamom hand ground and added to each pot brewed

Tavoos A-Frame

Mirza Qasimi - Warm Persian Eggplant Garlic Dip
Serves 4
Recipe courtesy Chef Alireza Fakhrashrafi, Takht-e Tavoos

2 large eggplants, about 1 lb each
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup finely chopped garlic
1/2 tsp ground turmeric
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper, or more to taste
1/4 cup tomato paste
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Pita for serving

Preheat oven to 400°F. Prick the eggplants with fork and place them on a parchment-lined roasting pan. Bake until soft, turning occasionally, about 35 to 45 minutes. When cool enough to handle — you can split them in half lengthwise to speed up cooling — scoop the flesh into a sieve placed over a bowl, discarding the stems and skins. Drain, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes. Finely chop the flesh and set aside.

In medium frying pan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook while stirring, until it becomes soft but not brown, about 3 minutes. Reduce the heat to low. Add the turmeric and cayenne and cook for 30 seconds. Then add the tomato paste and cook, stirring often, for 5 minutes. Add the reserved eggplant flesh, raise heat to medium and continue cooking while stirring, until the excess moisture has evaporated, about 2 to 4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and serve warm with pita or Persian flatbread.

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