Hafez – a magic carpet ride
Located a few steps away from Yotsubashi Station on the Yotsubashi Line in Osaka, Hafez, the café-dining room named for the great Persian poet, is well-marked and easily found. The menu is proudly posted on a sandwich board at the foot of the staircase which takes you up to the shop. Mind your head as you pass through the traditional low, rounded entryway (ensuring, like old Japanese shops, that everyone bows when they enter); it opens into a cosy room of about 10 tables and a (well-stocked) bar.
Mr Nader Mohamedi, has been a restauranteur in Osaka for twelve years now, eight of them spent running Hafez. His hometown is Zanjan, 300 km to the east of Tehran. His father ran a hotel there and it’s where Nader learned the importance of the care and comfort of customers. He learned, for example, that running a good restaurant is a full-time job. Like a poorly-run hotel, he says, who’s going to come back to a restaurant where you don’t feel at home? The number of regulars who arrived during our visit (and their warm welcome by the owner) seemed to bear his philosophy out.
He taught us a bit about Persian cooking. Persia (present-day Iran) was the gateway to the Silk Roads of the Far East, and the centuries of fusion have resulted in some wonderful cuisine. Persian food, like Turkish, focuses less on hot spiciness as it does on the subtle blending of herbs. Basic ingredients are tomatoes (both roasted and as the basis for many stews), lamb, eggplant, chicken, beans (especially lentils and chick peas), yogurt, rice, flatbreads and noodles. The combinations are seemingly endless.
We asked Nader to recommend a meal which would be a good introduction to Persian food. After serving us draft beer (525 yen), he whetted our appetites with a hummus platter (735 yen). The hummus (a dip or spread of mashed chick peas, sesame paste, garlic and lemon juice) was served with quarters of pita, and also went well with the toasty taste of the lavash (Persian flatbread, 189 yen each).
Next, we were served Kubideh , a rack of lean minced beef and lamb grilled on a skewer with a side of well-grilled tomato (945 yen). We learned to season it with somagh, the slightly tangy purple spice from the shaker on your table (as ubiquitous in Iran as Tabasco sauce in Japan) and dig in. Juicy and flavourful, it was a great complement to the main dish, the Baghali Polo (lamb pilaf, 945 yen). Strips of marinated lamb and broad beans (soramame そら豆 in Japanese) served on a fluffy bed of spiced and fragrant basmati rice, this pilaf was a both light (basmati!) and satisfying . Nader told me that the preparation of the rice called for eight traditional herbs used in typical Iranian kitchens, and I believe it (of course, he wasn’t going to say which herbs – chef’s privilege). On my next visit, I’m looking forward to trying Nader’s hearty-looking Azerbaijani lentil soup, definitely winter comfort food.
At the corner of the bar are several hookahs, or water pipes. You can try one after your meal, if you like (735 yen) – good for the digestion, so they say. If you’re there on the second or fourth Friday of the month, you can also enjoy the belly dancing show from 8:30. All in all, a good way to start the weekend.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Nader has created a space you’ll want to come back to, and stay for a while when you do.
Oriental and Café Dining
2nd Floor, 1-2-14 Kitanagahorie, Nishi-ku, Osaka
From Yotsubashi subway Stn, exit 5, turn left and walk one minute.
Open from 11:30 AM to “late” every day except Wednesday, when they open at 3:30 PM.
Party space available.
Note: Closed New Year’s Day 2008 (open from January 2nd).