Every Persian restaurant I’ve ever been to has been a copy of the previous one. White tablecloths, heavy wooden chairs, photographs of Persian ruins or Iranian architectural marvels, and the exact same menu every time. When Iranians in the States get together, we sometimes wonder who among us will break the mold and offer a fresh take on Persian cuisine in a sleek and contemporary environment. Enter Nasim Alikhani. Born in Isfahan and a graduate of Tehran University, she moved to America right after the revolution, and has now opened up her first restaurant, Sofreh, in Prospect Heights.

This is not your grandparents’ Persian restaurant.

In Farsi, sofreh is literally a fabric on which food is served, either on the ground or a table. Family meals are placed on the sofreh and this is where everyone gathers to eat—but its meaning and significance extend far beyond that. Each Iranian holiday or milestone has its own traditional sofreh. There’s a sofreh for the New Year, one for weddings and then there’s the Sofreh Nazr—a female tradition—which was Nasim’s inspiration for the name. A Sofreh Nazr is a spread made for friends, family and even strangers when a wish or prayer has been fulfilled. It’s very common in Iranian and Islamic culture to make a vow to cook a Sofreh Nazr for others to help a wish come true. This idea of food as karmic or emotional currency is part of Iranian culture and very present in Alikhani’s outlook on life.

Nasim grew up learning to cook from the women in her family, most notably her mother, her aunts and her grandmother. Amongst these women, food and cooking were expressions of love, care and duty that gave meaning to life. Alikhani tells me her mother would wake at up at 5 a.m. every day to make the family food before going to work as a teacher. And her grandmother, who had a limp due to polio, insisted on cooking for her family every day, despite their protests—she even cooked a meal the morning of the day she died. And Nasim recalls a time when she herself had pneumonia, but made two days worth of food for her children before checking herself into the hospital.

“I love hard labor” says Alikhani, “I define myself and my role in life through work.” She describes cooking as “a way to feel good about my existence. An artist creates. I cook.”

Herbed rice: fresh herbs, fava beans, aged pickled garlic. (Sai Mokhtari / Gothamist)

Food was always a way of life for her, but it was unthinkable to pursue cooking as a career. Instead she studied law, worked as a nanny, and later opened a print shop. Nasim later sold her printing business and began looking at spaces to finally open her first restaurant just as she found out she was pregnant with twins. Her plans for her restaurant were put on hold as she immersed herself in caring for her children and expressing her love for them through food, just as the women who raised her. As her children grew, Nasim poured more of her time into food, now cooking for local charities, homeless shelters and friends’ weddings. Cooking was her way of feeling useful she said, “it makes me feel good. I need to cook. When there is no one to feed…you might as well feed a homeless shelter.”

By the time her children were teenagers, Nasim realized it was time to turn her attention back to her dream of starting her own restaurant. “30 years in the making,” Sofreh is Nasim Alikhani’s first restaurant but it’s more like her third child. She began traveling extensively throughout Iran, visiting different regions and collecting recipes from around the country. She spoke about the different ways the same dish would change as she travelled from the ethnically Turkish areas to Kurdish areas and so on, and how these travels expanded her idea of Persian cuisine beyond the food typically found in the big cities. 

When her children entered high school, she began looking for her restaurant space in Brooklyn. Driving around the neighborhoods she loved, she found this particular space on St. Marks Ave. and Flatbush about 7 years ago. It took around a year before it was theirs, and she thought she would be able to open for business a year or two later. It took six.

(Sai Mokhtari / Gothamist)

The process became complicated due to Landmark Laws, as the building sits on the edge of historic Prospect Heights. During the six years it took to prepare the building, Nasim started a test kitchen at home and began fine tuning her own recipes. She went to culinary school and interned in the kitchens of a few chef friends, working as a line cook and a prep cook. Speaking about her experiences during this time, she notes that more than anything, she learned what she didn’t want to do. “I did not want a high-stress kitchen…a kitchen that runs like a business. I wanted a kitchen where everybody feels like a family.”

Atmosphere is a big part of what sets Sofreh apart from every other Iranian restaurant. It’s an airy space with minimal decor and high ceilings that might feel cold and sterile if it wasn’t so well loved. The arches above the bar are inspired by her grandmother’s home in Isfahan and the door knobs mimic the ancient door knockers found outside the gates of the oldest homes in Iran. It’s clear that the space has been meticulously put together. It is sleek and modern, but distinctly Iranian in its details.

“We always wanted a minimal approach, but we didn’t want to end up with a space that feels Scandanavian.” She describes a very intense and collaborative effort between herself, her husband Theodore Petroulas, and her art director Rozhia Tabnak. Her husband did much of the interior concrete work and even made the concrete tables himself and together, they carved the Persian calligraphy into the concrete wall that reads SOFREH. Rozhia made the bathroom her personal obsession—plastering all four walls and the ceiling of the upstairs bathroom with posters from pulpy Iranian movies from the '70. This bit of cheekiness was important to them, as they wanted to breath a bit of humor into an otherwise austere space. They even have a projector in the downstairs bathroom that plays these retro movies on the wall across the toilet. 

The space is unlike any other Persian restaurant I’ve ever seen but the most surprising thing about Sofreh is the menu. Absent are many of the greatest hits that have been on repeat at all other Persian restaurants. Though you may still start with a traditional cheese and herb plate, or Ash (soup), from there the menu diverges into new and rewarding territory. Sofreh offers fresh spins on well known dishes along with more obscure flavors from different regions around Iran. My personal favorite is the Spicy White Fish, served with a flavorful herb and tamarind sauce. The Persian Plum Chicken is another favorite, and feels like a fresh mix of a few well known dishes I’ve grown up with. I also suggest ordering anything eggplant. The eggplant appetizer is fantastic and the smoked eggplant is intensely flavorful and great for sharing. 

Sofreh's bar. (Sai Mokhtari / Gothamist)

The cocktail menu is also impressive, seamlessly blending uniquely Iranian flavors to create truly impressive drinks. The Saffron Vesper offers the most classically Persian flavor profile, as its mix of saffron and rose water remind me of every Persian desert I’ve ever had, minus the sugar. The Zereshk Sour is also a lot of fun, a nod to the uniquely Iranian zereshk or barberry, made with housemade zereshk syrup and garnished with a sprinkle of these iconic and precious berries. 

Alikhani and her team have created a beautiful and welcoming space to present an exciting array of uniquely Persian dishes. Especially now, she says, “as Iranian Americans we need to claim our space. Yes, I owe a lot to this country but I have given back a lot to this country. It’s been a beautiful back and forth, and now I want to claim my space as an Iranian woman through food…to me this is a holy grail.” 

This is an important restaurant in the history of Persian cuisine and a pilgrimage all Iranians (and non-Iranians!) should make. It’s taken a lifetime, namely hers, for Nasim to bring Sofreh into existence. She recounts the women in her family who planted this seed in her and taught her that life is about hard work, and that love is about food and food is about love. The stories of these incredible women, some who passed away before she was even born, live on through the recipes passed down to her. These women, she says, "never reached their maximum potential,” and that is something she is determined not to repeat.

(Sai Mokhtari / Gothamist)

Nasim has photos of these women framed in the corner of the private dining area downstairs, as they are an important part of Sofreh’s story. And for the women who never had a photograph of themselves, Nasim has written their names. Above this humble mural, she has hung a colander that once belonged to her aunt’s grandmother as a light fixture to illuminate this small but important corner of her restaurant. She points to a tiny candle that has been sitting on the downstairs table beside us. “This is a candle I light every day for all the women in my family.” She started this tradition on the very first day she cooked in her kitchen at Sofreh. “I sit down here with them every morning…I salute all seven of them. They all mean so much in my life…and I thank them for who I am. And then I start my work.”

Sofreh is located at 75 St Marks Avenue in Brooklyn (646-340-0322)