The Vegetarian Option: Persian Dishes for Sharing at Shalezeh
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.