Little Italy’s Persian Find

Ozra offers a different cuisine in the Old World neighborhood.

Suzanne Loudermilk Haughey - January 2014

Ozra offers a different cuisine in Little Italy

Ozra offers a different cuisine in the Old World neighborhood.

Suzanne Loudermilk Haughey - January 2014

Co-owner Reza Holland. -Scott Suchman

If you’re not careful, you’ll walk right past the entrance to Ozra, despite the flag bearing its name above an awning. The solid front door doesn’t immediately distinguish itself as a place of business. But persevere. Gustatory pleasures await those who find their way inside. The two-level space sends a warm welcome with its gold-and-maroon accents against pale walls, bare-wood tables, subtle lighting, sitar music, and rows of glass containers, each encasing a delicate flower. The downstairs dining room can get noisy in the evening when a happy-hour crowd gathers at the small bar in the rear, but it’s a fine place to indulge in the restaurant’s intriguing Persian cuisine, which borrows from the dishes of India and other Middle Eastern countries, and its Mediterranean fare.

We prefer the intimacy of the upstairs room, which is actually a mezzanine overlooking the lively scene below. (Note: It’s much quieter during lunchtime.) The building was once a bakery in Little Italy and is just steps from the neighborhood’s iconic dessert place, Vaccaro’s.

Don’t worry about parking: If you can’t find a space on the street, a garage is conveniently located next door. And the restaurant will stamp your ticket at night, so the tariff is only $4.

In the restaurant, co-owners Reza Holland and Mahrdad “Max” Tabasi have created an understated, elegant setting as a backdrop for their wonderfully aromatic skewers, stews, and selection of basmati rices. But, like many restaurants, the kitchen tweaks the menu with seasonal favorites like two of its winter offerings: a Persian noodle soup and khoresht fesenjan with sautéed chicken, toasted walnuts, and pomegranate sauce­­—with rice, of course!

Our servers—who were cheerful and helpful on both of our visits—were only too happy to explain how best to pair the fragrant cooked grain with all of the entrees.

Before you get to that point, though, a garlicky hummus is served at dinner to stave off any hunger pains while you decide on starters. You can order the various eggplant and homemade yogurt dips separately, but my friends and I enjoyed sharing the yogurt trio.

It’s fun trying to decide on a favorite—if you can even choose. Each creamy mix has its own personality: one with cucumbers and mint, another with dried shallots, and the other, called borani, with spinach and garlic.

Another time, we delved into the eggplant baba, a tantalizing blend of puréed eggplant, onions, Persian goat cheese, and walnuts. It may not be a beauty, but the brown concoction is great, especially scooped up with crisp pita-bread triangles.

The shirazi salad is a flavorful beginning, too. Its simplicity with cucumbers, tomatoes, red onions, and parsley, tossed with a citrus jus, belies the complexity of the whole. It didn’t take long for this dish to disappear.

Now, back to the basmati decision. There are four types on the menu. The delicate, long-grain rice is available plain, with barberries (a tiny, bright-red fruit grown in Europe), with dill and fava beans, and with sour cherries, all dusted with saffron.

Our waitress suggested the dill-and-fava-bean rice with the khoresht ghormeh sabzi, a stew of fork-tender filet-mignon cubes, vegetables, and red beans. The dense, meaty combo is served in a bowl, while the rice is decoratively arranged on a separate plate with red-onion slivers and a charred, roasted tomato.

The kitchen pays attention to presentation with a series of pretty plates. The jumbo shrimp, marinated in a saffron-citrus-herb-sauce, were carefully nestled like sleeping children on a plate, as was a strip of savory skewered ground sirloin (mixed in-house)—that coupled beautifully with the sour-cherry basmatic rice.

The lamb chops are a specialty, our server said. We can see why. The four chops (three for lunch), seared on the outside, were moist and tender and went well with the tart barberries—they remind us of cranberries in taste—in the accompanying rice.

Desserts may seem familiar, but they are distinctive. The honey-drenched baklava, for instance—a pillowy, layered pastry—is made with almonds, a welcome variation from the traditional pistachios. The Persian ice cream is a heavenly ball of saffron and rosewater. And the lemon sorbet has an interesting texture with threads of frozen noodles.

This newest Little Italy restaurant is truly a find, once you’ve found the front door, that is.

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