Near the back of a busy new Persian restaurant, a server set down a family-sized breakfast soup made with sheep’s tongues, long-simmered hooves and a flurry of cinnamon among a group of diners. The diners looked amazed at first and a little uncertain. They snapped smartphone pictures and breathed in the warm, sweet steam before squeezing lemon quarters over top of the soup and tearing into it. They dipped in shards of glossy barbari flat bread, hot still from the oven and studded with black nigella seeds, to scoop up hunks of creamy-textured tongue.
They ate green olives tossed with chopped walnuts, mint and pomegranate molasses, and steamed red beets in yogurt, and a dish of sunny-side up eggs with halloumi cheese and smoked salmon.
Not far from them, another table ate a stew of lamb shank, beans, vegetables and dried limes, served in a tall stone pot called a dizi, with bergamot-scented tea and that warm flatbread and thick yogurt and tart pickled carrots.
This was Persian home cooking, none of it dumbed down for Canadian palates. And it wasn’t in North York, at Yonge and Steeles along the stretch of hookah lounges, Iranian grocers and kebab shops often referred to as Little Persia. This was downtown, on College Street, just to the west of Little Italy.
The flavours were fresh, vivid, exotic, wildly comforting: mint leaves, puckery red fruit and citrus tempered with warm-toned bazaar spices; earthy wheat berries and lentils cooked to porridge-like creaminess; squeaky-textured, briny white cheese and that extraordinary fresh-baked flatbread.
The lamb in that dizi stew tasted almost as if it was seasoned with orchard fruits. Those eggs and smoked salmon made you wonder why you’d ever have breakfast anywhere else.
Takht-e Tavoos, as the room is called (it is open from 10 a.m. to 4 pm only; with both breakfast and lunch dishes available), is the third sibling in a quiet College Street empire of Persian restaurants run by the couple Alireza Fakhrashrafi and Danielle Schrage; the others, at College and Bathurst, are Pomegranate, an 11-year-old dinner spot specializing in homestyle and historical Persian dishes, and Sheherzade, a newer kebab shop.
And in case this isn’t clear yet, Tavoos is a must-visit. Just as Middle Eastern spices, offal, wheat berries, pickled vegetables and red fruit molasses have become newly trendy, here’s a place that does them with a millennium or so of history as a backstop.
The mazeh – small and inexpensive vegetable dishes and salads – are the simplest way in. The kashk-e bademjan, made from sautéed, mashed eggplant, mint and crisp fried onions, is a good bet, as are those olives with ground walnuts and pomegranate molasses (they come topped with tart barberries; it’s a terrific dish). The mushroom borani – chopped mushrooms mixed with yogurt and seasoning, essentially – is also a good beginning.
The egg dishes, under the menu’s “breakfast” heading, take the all-Canadian diner staple — two perfect, sunny-side up eggs — eastward. The guisavah for example, from Ardabil, in Iran’s northwest, sets its eggs over chopped dates and walnuts that have been sautéed in butter. There’s a dish of ardeh shireh with it. You’ll want to have that. It’s tahini mixed with sweet grape syrup.
Tavoos’s specialty dishes are the standouts, however. That sheep soup, called kaleh pacheh, is perhaps the simplest of them. Kaleh pacheh is breakfast food around Iran, lightly seasoned and often served in micro-specialist restaurants that open at dawn and close before 8 a.m. It is commonly, but not always, served with whole sheep’s heads, with an option of ordering extra parts such as cheek, brain or eyes. (You can find whole heads for $1.99 each at North York’s incredible Super Khorak grocery, if you’re in the market).
There is some debate among Iranians as to whether kaleh pacheh is best served with or without the eyeballs. At Tavoos, the soup is made with the tongues, a bit of mashed brain, cheeks and sheep’s hooves only. (Mr. Fakhrashrafi, who is the chef, said he hopes to be able to offer a menu of extra parts in future.)
It is a textural experience almost as much as a flavour one. The tongues are meaty, mild tasting and silky from hours of slow braising. The hooves have been dissolved in large part into liquid from heat and time so that the broth is rich and thick, almost as with Japan’s tonkotsu ramen, or some of Mexico’s pozoles. (The tongue, meantime, is not all that different from how it comes in Jewish delis.)
There are a few little bits to chew around and to savour. The lemon is important, that pop of sunny acidity to pull it all into balance. You can add pickled garlic cloves and red chiles if you like.
The dizi sanghi, served in that tall stone pot, is the most complex and visually appealing of Tavoos’s heavier dishes. The stew is a two-part meal, with the broth decanted into a soup bowl, and the lamb and vegetables in the dizi pot. It all comes on a silver platter, with a long, metal pestle that’s used to mash the stew.
The stew, once it’s mashed, is spooned onto the flatbread, with yogurt and pickled vegetables. The soup is sopped up with little bits of flatbread. The broth is meaty, thick with starch from chickpeas and white beans, with accents of bright-flavoured lime and turmeric.
It is all incredibly tasty; simple food that eats like ceremony. (Also a plus, the menu explains exactly how to eat it all. Mr. Fakhrashrafi and Ms. Schrage first met as Middle Eastern studies students at the University of Toronto. They’re great explainers.)
The haleem, a thick, glutinous porridge made from wheat berries, is also suitably breakfast-like. It is studded with pockets of cinnamon and butter, and tender, pounded lamb.
“It’s meat dessert!” a friend of mine exclaimed when he tasted it.
Somebody snapped an iPhone picture.
This was College Street, after all.