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Dining out meat-free.

The Vegetarian Option: Persian Dishes for Sharing at Shalezeh

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Sambusa, chickpea-stuffed turnovers. [Photographs: Lauren Rothman]

New Yorkers: I know you've all been there. You've just spend an art-filled morning at the Met (or the Guggenheim or the Neue Galerie, whatever's your jam) and while your soul is nourished, your stomach is famished. But where to eat a light and flavorful but still somewhat out of the ordinary lunch on the Upper East Side?

I discovered the answer when a friend and I stopped by Shalezeh on 81st Street. The cavernous restaurant serves Persian food, which boasts a set of unique dishes but also some Middle Eastern staples; hummus, baba ghanoush, and falafel are all there on the menu.

But if you're willing to venture a little further afield, Shalezeh will reward you with some flavorful surprises such as its sambusa ($6, pictured at top), four crispy, greaseless chickpea-stuffed turnovers served with a bright cilantro sauce. If you know Indian cuisine, then you know that this dish is remarkably similar to samosas, though filled with legumes instead of potatoes and peas.

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Yogurt and spinach dip.

An appetizer of esfanaaj ($6), provided a creamy counterpoint to the crunchy turnovers: soft, garlic-sautéed spinach was folded with rich, creamy yogurt, caramelized shallots, and plenty of fresh dill. Like a somewhat lighter version of Indian saag paneer, or spinach with fresh cheese, the dip was excellent scooped up with the whole wheat pitas the restaurant serves.

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Eggplant dip.

If you love baba ghanoush but are looking to mix it up a bit, Shalezeh has just the thing: eggplant halim ($6), creamy roasted eggplant shot through with sticky caramelized onions and tender split peas, served with a dollop of tangy yogurt. Baba ghanoush's sweeter, less tangy cousin is just as satisfying.

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Shirazi salad.

For some freshness and crunch, the restaurant's basic but lemony and well-seasoned Shirazi salad ($5) can't be beat. At this time of year, the tomatoes were perfectly ripe, the cucumbers crisp and refreshing, and a heavy dose of parsley added tons of flavor.

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Red bean stew...

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Served with fluffy dill and fava bean rice.

Happily for vegetarians, Shalezeh offers three meat-free main dishes. The ghormeh sabzi ($14) is a light stew of red kidney beans and tender greens cooked in a sour, puckery broth accented with plenty of dried limes. A glimpse of the luxuries of Persian cuisine is evident in the restaurant's complimentary rice options: plain basmati rice is offered, as well as basmati rice with fava beans and fresh dill; with lentils, saffron and raisins; and with marinated sour cherries. All three options sounded fantastic, but we opted for the rice with with dill and favas, and its bright herbal flavor made a perfect foil for the stew, toning down its acidity just enough.

I was surprised by the level of quality Shalezeh brings to its food—espeically given that the giant restaurant was completely empty at peak lunch hour. I know I'll be back the next time I make a trek up to Museum Mile.

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