Chef Sardari talks the new restaurant’s inspiration and a few ideas behind its delicious dishes.
Yahya Sardari knows many ways to measure time. The hours it takes to mince 40 pounds of parsley by hand; how long to soak walnuts to make them supple; and how long to braise, stir and stew a dish to perfection. He also knows how many months renovating a professional kitchen and working with permitting agencies can take. But it’s all been worth the wait as he opens KooKoo Restaurant and Lounge, serving his native Persian food to the District.
The restauranteur owned and operated Columbia Height’s beloved Coffey Café for seven years, but in April 2022 he needed a change. He closed the café and set out to fulfill dream of opening restaurant dedicated to homestyle Persian cuisine.
“In Persian cooking, the dish dictates your time; you don’t dictate its time,” he says.
KooKoo (pronounced “cuckoo”) shares its name with a Persian-style frittata. Sardari says it’s catchy and fun to say, while also offering more fanciful implications.
Persian food, Sardari describes, has a lot in common with Mediterranean cuisine due to the region’s long history of travel and trade.
“It’s very aromatic because we use lots of herbs and spices,” he says.
His regular grocery list includes turmeric, cinnamon, cumin, saffron, cilantro, dill, parsley and spinach. The food is flavorful but not spicy, he adds.
Many dishes mingle herby, sweet, tart and savory flavors all at once. KooKoo serves fensenjoon, made with walnuts and pomegranate molasses, with either chicken or portobellos. The beef in the khoresh ghormeh sabzi falls apart with the slightest pressure, tender in its bed of stewed greens and kidney beans. Cream of whey provides a sweet note to sauteed eggplant, onion, garlic and mint in the kashk bademjan. Vegetarian options also abound, particularly among the small-plate mazzé offerings.
KooKoo’s menu has a few surprises, including a French-style lamb stew, fries tossed in lemony sumac, and chicken wings sticky with a sweet pomegranate sauce.
Such twists continue behind the bar, where Danielle Chisolm artfully mixes Persian flavors into classic cocktails. A French 75 becomes her Yar with the addition of rosewater. Another sparkling drink, the Azadi, honors the women-led revolution in Iran, and features vodka and lavender syrup. Saffron water transforms an old-fashioned into the Azizam, and the mojito travels east with Chisolm’s use of sekanjabin, an ancient Iranian drink made with vinegar, honey and mint.
KooKoo’s atmosphere is warm, simple and inviting. Saffron rice fragrances the entire space. Sardari’s friends provided paintings of calligraphed poems, a mosaic-styled Persian Gulf and Tehran’s iconic Azazdi Tower. Blues and golds pop throughout the room and the private lounge upstairs.
At the back of the main dining room hangs a photo from the ’30s of three generations of Sardari’s family, including his mother at age 15. She was the first to show him when it was time to stir, time to serve and time to eat.
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