I HAVE discovered Iran’s secret weapon and it is not a nuclear bomb hidden deep inside a mountain.
It’s a little glass of noodles chilled over ice, sweetened with sugar and flavoured with rosewater, cherry sauce and lime juice. Doesn’t sound much but it’s rather nice.
And if that doesn’t disarm you after a pleasing meal, nothing will.
Tonight we’re at the Shahrzad Persian restaurant on London Road, Sheffield, pretty unpronounceable to we Brits, but it’s the same as Scheherazade, the wife who kept the sultan from cutting off her head with bedtime stories for 1001 nights – Ali Baba, Sinbad, Aladdin and all that.
Eating here is no pantomime although the stage is rather bare as we do have the place almost all to ourselves apart from a couple of owner Mohammed Abbasi’s friends.
The restaurant is clean and smart and minimalist with a tiled floor, cream coloured walls, for which his mother-in-law is promising to bring more of the intriguing wooden oriental-looking pictures.
I’ve wandered by several times and seen the place deserted and rather hoped that a menu would be in the window to give some idea of what Shahrzad offers and the price. As it is I’ve had to download it from the internet before making up my mind.
Persian cooking, one of the oldest in the world – no Iranian worth his salt will neglect to drop into the conversation that his country has been in business for at least 2,500 years - is classical, up there with the French and Chinese.
The Crusaders brought back some of its techniques and dishes which had seeped into the Middle East, which is why it’s not a million miles away from what the English posh nobs ate in the Twelfth and Thirteenth centuries.
Don’t just think kebabs but saffron, pomegranate seeds, walnuts, aubergines and whey, what’s left over when milk is separated from its curds.
When I suggest a window menu Mohammed says he’s been advised not to stick one up “so people come in to find out.” Sounds a rum one to me. If you’ve got it, flaunt it, is my advice.
And Shahrzad has a lot to flaunt. The price is right and the cooking, by Mohammed and his wife Najmeh Sanati, is appealing.
He has worked for pizza restaurants and regularly cooks for friends. “They said you should open your own restaurant.” So he did.
The menu has 30 dishes and just four starters. We begin with tasty little dolmeh, universal throughout the Middle East, vine leaves stuffed with meat and rice, and kashke bademjan, slices of garlicky fried aubergine, lightly crushed, and topped with crushed walnuts with a little pool of whey, creamier and richer than yoghurt, to the side.The combination is quite something, mysteriously exotic. It comes with chapati-like bread which is bought in. Mohammed is a little dismissive of it. Normally he makes his own toftun, a sort of naan, but the oven’s playing up. Both cost £3.
I tell my wife the restaurant used to be an Indian and before it became Shahrzad was run by people from Kurdistan. “Ah, Kurds and whey,” she says as I finish the last of my starter.
Our mains arrive with a wonderful smell. I’ve got bakhtiari (£9), a skewer of lamb fillet plus marinated chicken breast with saffron rice and grilled tomatoes.
The lamb really is fillet, lovely and tender, and the chicken likewise, marinated in something very garlicky. There is far too much rice – Mohammed has mixed the saffron with butter to make it richer – but it’s a super little dish all round.
Chicken also features prominently in my wife’s main, Zereshk Polo Ba Morge (if your Farsi isn’t up to scratch all the dishes are numbered. This is number 18).
First arrives a plate of rice in the Persian national colours of red, white and green, and flecked with bright red little berries. These are barberries with an intriguing sweet-sour flavour, which give the rice a different dimension to mine.
But where’s the chicken? She forks through anxiously until it arrives in a dish, legs and thigh in a rich tomato sauce.
This chicken (£7.50) couldn’t taste more different to mine. “Delicious,” she murmurs. It was cooked by Najmeh.
We shared a salad (£2) and some fierce pickles (£2) which Persians love.
Mohammed has named the restaurant after the eldest of his three daughters, who is 11, to the annoyance of the others, and we get a glimpse of her earlier. Shahrzad is very much a family affair.
And so to that sweet (the only other choice is cream cake). The contrast between the noodles and ice is rewarding while you add the sour cherry and sharp lime as you wish. It cleanses the palate and settles the tum.
We washed it down with a glass of dough, a yoghurt drink very much like lassi, and a cola (£1 each) and finished up with Persian tea (£1.40), very much like our own.
Mohammed is relying on word of mouth about his cooking so let me blow the trumpet for him.
We paid £33.90. More dishes, including fish and vegetarian options, are promised.
280 London Road, Sheffield, S2 4NA.
Tel: 0114 327 6328.
Open all week 5.30pm -10pm.
BYO (No corkage).
Disabled access and toilets.
My star ratings (out of five):