The Vegetarian Option: Persepolis
1407 2nd Avenue, New York NY 10021 (between 73rd & 74th; map); 212-535-1100; persepolisnyc.com.com
Veggie Options: 8 appetizers, 6 salads, 3 entrees
Cost: Appetizers & salads $6-9, entrees $15
I was excited to find that out in the East 70s is a small hotspot of Persian cuisine. A little calculated digging led me to Persepolis, one of the most popular of the Persian restaurants in the area, which also offers a decent vegetarian selection. Persian cuisine may not be that easy to come by, but as a huge fan of Middle Eastern food I had a very good feeling about it.
The atmosphere definitely aims to please their Upper East Side clientele. Given the ambiance, you may fear that you accidentally signed up for a pricy meal, or that the food might put presentation before authenticity. But don't be deceived: the air of pretension stops at the white tablecloths and sleek square plates.
The list of delicious-sounding appetizers was a bit daunting, so we went with our waiter's recommendation of Labu (beet) Salad ($7) and Eggplant Mirzah ($7). When our beet salad arrived I could have easily mistaken it for an elegant plate of tuna tartar, but of course it was totally fish-free. The diced beets were lightly marinated in a cherry vinaigrette and sat atop a layer of feta cheese, with a sprinkling of finely shredded lettuce on top. A light and satisfactory start to the meal—it neither won me over nor disappointed.
But the Eggplant Mirzah stole my heart. The thick spread of roasted eggplant, tomato, and garlic was rich with earthy Middle Eastern spices, and topped with a small smear of homemade yogurt. I could not stop scooping it up with and spreading it on bits of pita, hoping that, despite my piggishness, the dish might never end. (Of course, such hopes are always in vain.)
Of the three vegetarian entrees, we ordered the two stews. Both were vegetarian versions of dishes from the non-veg side of the menu. The Khorest Ghormeh Sabzi stew ($15) is a meatless version of one of Iran's most popular dishes, consisting of greens cooked with red beans and dried lime. It was the lime that likely caused this dish to be off-puttingly sour, which might have worked if not for the bitter tang that went along with it. Not quite a palate-pleaser.
The Khorest Gaimeh Badamjan ($15), however, was quite pleasant. The eggplant and tomato stew was accentuated with toothsome split-peas and spiced with cinnamon, making for a very hearty and satisfying dish. Total comfort food in all the best of ways.
But it was actually the rice that really impressed. Each main comes with a full plate of your choice of rice: plain, dill, orange-almond, or sour cherry. For our two dishes we ordered the dill rice, which was pleasantly herby with a smattering of fava beans, and the sour cherry rice, which was shockingly good; unlike any rice I've ever encountered, it was decidedly on the sweet side but with a slight sour tang. One bite and I was hooked. Even though it was meant to accompany our main dishes, I actually preferred to eat this rice by itself in greedy forkfuls. It rocked the sweet and sour combination better than I could have possibly imagined.
As a bonus, the portion sizes are fairly generous at Persepolis. With each entrée accompanied by a large plate of rice, and the appetizers more filling than expected, we had no room for dessert and plenty of food left to doggie-bag at the end of our meal. I wish I'd tried their rose ice cream, but given how good the meal was, I'm more than happy to make a return trip.