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A Thousand and One Nights of Persian Cuisine

A Thousand and One Nights of Persian Cuisine

Rebecca Cha
Focal point: Zafron's woodburning stone oven where pita is baked and served fresh throughout service.

Timeless, traditional fare in the heart of Sandy Springs

Focal point: Zafron's woodburning stone oven where pita is baked and served fresh throughout service.
Focal point: Zafron’s wood burning stone oven where pita is baked and served fresh throughout service.

Zafron flew under my radar for years until recently when some foodie friends asked what I thought of it. I confessed I’d never been there, and they gasped in disbelief. “How have you missed it?” they cried. “It’s wonderful!” Embarrassed, I mumbled about it being “low profile,” or some such nonsense, but promised to go at the first opportunity. A wise decision. Zafron (Farsi for “saffron”) may not be on any “top 10 in Atlanta” lists, but to heck with those lists.

The sabzi plate is a delightful starter and is—like the freshly baked pita—always complimentary.
The sabzi plate is a delightful starter and is—like the freshly baked pita—always complimentary.

As I discovered for myself over several visits, Zafron is a neighborhood gem that could easily be an every-night-of-the-week affair. We pulled up at “early bird” hours on a Saturday evening and found the parking lot already full. Families streamed in the front door, and we followed, entering a modest dining room packed with customers and conviviality. Walls of calming orange and red and air scented with Persian aromatics create a vibe that is intimate and energizing. Half-moon booths weave down the center with tables flanking either side.

A gracious host led us to a cozy booth, and within minutes, complimentary stone oven-baked pita arrived along with a colorful sabzi plate—small bites of feta, cucumbers, mint and basil, radish, walnuts and olives. The crisp, light pita proved the perfect vehicle for our starters.

Marinated in yogurt and cardamom then grilled to medium-rare, Zafron's savory lamb kabob is a menu must-order.
Marinated in yogurt and cardamom then grilled to medium-rare, Zafron’s savory lamb kabob is a menu must-order.

The first was mirza ghasemi, a fire-roasted tomato and mashed eggplant dish blended with traditional spices. We found the silky texture winning and the eggplant flavor earthy and thoughtfully prepared, but my guest declared it “too smoky” after a bite or two. Thankfully, the second starter of muhammara had universal appeal. A generous portion of red bell pepper hummus with a soupçon of fiery heat, it was drizzled with a blood-red pomegranate glaze. We followed this up with a palate cleansing shirazi salad—crisp lettuces, seedless grapes, olives and crumbled feta served with a luscious mint and citrus vinaigrette.

You can’t go to a Persian restaurant and not eat kabobs. There are many tempting choices, but this night, we had our hearts set on lamb. As the plant-based movement takes hold in Atlanta, it’s trickier to find lamb on menus, so if you’re a fan or save it for special occasions, Zafron is the place for you. They’ve nailed this dish, marinating it in yogurt and cardamom then grilling to medium rare with a nice exterior char. Served with tangy shallot-yogurt sauce and aged basmati rice with lentils, raisins and advieh (Persian spice mix), it’s a perfect sharing plate.

The verdict’s still out on desserts at Zafron, where the sweets are more East-meets-West than straight-up Persian. To wit: tiramisu. Yes, it was on the menu, and yes, we tried it. I know, I know. I hear all the purists in the room cry “foul!” but my justification (or rationalization) is this: Why else would they put it on the menu unless it was really good?

The grilled chicken skewer with basmati rice, raisins and pistachios is rich with traditional Persian flavors.
The grilled chicken skewer with basmati rice, raisins and pistachios is rich with traditional Persian flavors.

It arrived pretty as a still life, with butter-colored cream, a thick dusting of cocoa powder and a dark chocolate straw and button for added panache. The mascarpone’s flavor was too subtle for my taste, but the espresso soaked ladyfingers were deliciously moist and bittersweet. We also ordered the more traditional pistachio roulade, a sponge cake filled with crème fraiche, mascarpone and a touch of rosewater. It was mildly sweet and studded with crunchy bits of pistachio, but since the rosewater flavor fades after a day or two, be sure to ask if the roulade is made that day.

Our follow-up meal began with the “Zafron special”—not technically a special as it’s on the menu year-round—but the flavor is indeed special. Green chile chutney mixed with freshly chopped mango, blanched eggplant, cilantro and spices, it was a table favorite. We also ordered Zafron wings and an arugula salad. The meaty, marinated wings are skewered, cooked perfectly on the grill and served with a side of “spicy lemon hot sauce,” which, uncharacteristic of Persian cuisine, ran high on the Scoville scale.

There's no better way to start a meal here than fresh pita and eggplant-rich mirza ghasemi.
There’s no better way to start a meal here than fresh pita and eggplant-rich mirza ghasemi.

Thankfully, the wings were so good, the sauce was unnecessary. The cooling mid-meal salad was a welcome splash of green and artfully tossed with sweet dates, cherry tomatoes and diced beets, then dressed with a delightfully subtle sumac and balsamic vinaigrette. Still eager for more, we opted for the fire-roasted salmon, which the server was happy to split for us. One of my favorite salmon dishes in recent memory, it was seasoned with lime and saffron, grilled to medium and plated with a yummy dill-fava basmati rice.

Besides the delicious authentic fare, one of the best things about Zafron is that no matter how much we ordered—and it was always plenty—the bill seemed to creep up at a snail’s pace, causing me to check if they’d forgotten to add a dish or two. Zafron really is the best of traditional old-world dining and hospitality: reasonably priced, generous to a fault and masterful in technique, presentation and flavor. It’s guaranteed I won’t pass by Zafron as before without popping in to experience the magic all over again.

ZAFRON RESTAURANT
236 Johnson Ferry Road N.E.,
Sandy Springs
30328
404.255.7402
persianrestaurantsandysprings.com

Prices: starters: $5-$9; salads: $6-$9; wraps (lunch only): $12; entrees: $12-$32; sides and rice: $3-$7; desserts: $5-$7.

Recommended: mirza ghasemi, muhammara, Zafron special, Zafron wings, arugula salad, shirazi salad, marinated lamb kabob with lentil-raisin basmati, fire-roasted salmon with dill-fava basmati, pistachio roulade.

Bottom line: This neighborhood gem serves up fresh, authentic Persian/Iranian dishes with earnest old-world hospitality.

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