Drive too fast and you might miss the the wooden terrace on Lake Avenue in St. James that marks the entrance to . But people in the know will tell you you're missing one of the area’s best kept secrets in international cuisine.
“Some of our customers don’t want us to advertise because they don’t want so many people to know about this place,” said Jay Farhoudi, who runs the restaurant with his brother, Hugh.
The two had talked of opening an eatery together for years while Hugh, an architect, was living in London. When he came to the U.S. in 2006 they made their vision a reality. Jay’s decades of experience in the food service industry combined with his younger brother’s flare for aesthetic style to create a cozy but refined atmosphere. Their mother, Parvin, took over the kitchen.
“This is like what you get in Persian houses if they invite you,” Hugh said.
Jay said the cuisine of his Persian heritage isn't what many people expect.
“We’re about flavor. We put a lot of kick in it, but our food is not spicy. It’s about seasoning,” he said.
All the recipes are their mother’s, which Jay said gives the food a home-cooked quality that’s hard to find in restaurants, even in heavily Persian communities like Great Neck.
He stressed that the menu is more than just Persian dishes. It includes a variety of Mediterranian-inspired foods, he said – which often has newcomers mistaking the café as Greek, although it does serve gyros and other Greek meals. There are Italian dishes that Jay said give any Italian eatery’s best pastas a run for their money.
“If you want the best Italian dish, you come here,” he said a customer once told him.
The filet mignon kabobs and tuna are the “best in town,” Jay said. Hugh noted that everything is cooked in extra virgin olive oil and made with fresh ingredients – very few items have been frozen and nothing comes from a can.
The dinner specials are all authentic Persian, as the names imply. Zereshk Polo is chicken marinated in saffron, one of the most expensive spices, which Hugh said enhances natural flavors to provide a certain richness. The chicken is prepared in a tomato saffron sauce and served with a mixture of basmati rice, caramelized onions, pistachios, almonds and a Persian berry called zereshk.
Other specials feature lamb and veal shanks, panko-crusted sea bass and flat iron steak. Each is made in a manner that sets it apart from similar but familiar dishes found elsewhere, prepared by the Farhoudi brothers’ maadar in a kitchen visible from the dining room.
“She does everything herself. Even cutting up the potatoes, she won’t let anyone else do it,” Jay said.
Hugh’s influence makes for a visually inviting space to dine. He’s going for a vibe that feels like it belongs in Manhattan, he said. White walls are accented by an elegant dark wood trim. A real treat is the array of plantings Hugh arranges in the spring and summer, an interesting assortment of oversized leaves and striking bunches of flowers vivid with color. It is a display which Jay said has drawn the attention of a number of professional gardeners in the area who come to take pictures and ask Hugh how he does it, according to Jay.
But it is the food which Jay said he takes the most pride in, and what has his customers raving to their friends and colleagues to the point that on some nights, the dining room is full of doctors from Stony Brook University Medical Center calling out to each other from different tables - a word-of-mouth testament to the café's quality.
“If you appreciate life, you appreciate this food,” he said.