Reviewed by William Dobson
When people in the West think of Iran, they tend to think of rather sinister looking ayatollahs with intimidatingly long beards, the threat of nuclear weapons, and Ahmadinejad casting aspersions on the veracity of the Holocaust. However, it’s a continually misunderstood part of the world. Iranians, certainly those living in exile, are among the most interesting and open people you could hope to meet, and its culture and history is rich and fascinating. Moreover, the country is also home to one of the most exciting cuisines in the Middle East. With as much regional diversity as Italy even, it’s characterised by its liberal use of fresh herbs, fruits and saffron, with perhaps less reliance on spice than other Middle Eastern countries.
With this in mind, I felt that it was about time to check out Simurgh. Just off Covent Garden, it’s named after a benevolent winged creature which features strongly in Persian mythology (pictured); gigantic enough to carry off an elephant or a whale, it is similar to a peacock but with the head of a dog and the claws of a lion. Simurgh is also the first Persian restaurant located in the heart of London.
I’m always slightly perturbed when eating in an otherwise empty establishment. Perhaps it was just a quiet Monday or perhaps the frequenters of the West End aren’t ready to embrace ethnic cuisine to the extent that those in other areas of London have. Yet, in spite of this, the experience was perfectly enjoyable. The restaurant is thoughtfully decorated with Persian artwork, Arabesque and various other Oriental touches and, as you would expect when you are outnumbered by staff two to one, the service was quick and efficient, although perhaps slightly taciturn. The food was also really rather pleasant while the portions were vast.
For starters, we had Persian yoghurt with mint and cucumbers and Ghel Ghely, or spicy meatballs in a ‘saffronic’ tomato sauce. Although I detest cucumbers more than anything else in this world (either they had failed to mention their inclusion on the menu or they brought us the wrong thing), the yoghurt was light and creamy with just the right amount of salt to bring out the sweetness in the dish. The Ghel Ghely were also delectable; indeed, everything you could hope for from meatballs, although probably not dissimilar enough from those in a meatball marinara subway to make them really standout.
However, it was the main courses that we had specifically come to try, with Iran famed (certainly in Iran) for its vast array of different stews and grilled meats. Looking to go for something authentic, I had khoresht-e fesenjan, or duck legs cooked in a pomegranate and walnut sauce, after the waitress had informed me that it was ‘the most traditional dish ever in the whole history of the world. Fact!’ I’m not sure where she sourced this information, but it was certainly delicious. Cooked slowly to allow all the flavours to develop, the duck could be pulled off the bone with just a fork and the sauce was a balanced mix of sweet and sour, enhanced by a dust of cinnamon, while the walnuts added a creamy, pleasant hint of bitterness. My dining companion for the evening, fellow Sugar Street Review editor Tom, went for cubes of lamb fillet, cooked with tomatoes, aubergines, lentils and preserved lime. Not usually known for giving praise unless praise is overtly due, I was relieved when he had only good things to say. The fillet of lamb couldn’t have been more tender, while the sauce was deep and rich in flavour. The preserved limes, something neither of us had ever come across before, added a lovely twist, slightly tart and sour, but also deliciously fragrant. Both dishes were served with three different types of rice (dill, saffron, and tomato), which was a nice touch and were all light and fluffy.
Unable to find Gobi, Sahara or Kalahari in the ’deserts’ section of their menu, we plumped for paloodeh to finish off the meal. This is an incredibly popular dessert in Iran, particularly in Shiraz, with vermicelli mixed with sugar syrup and flavoured with rosewater before being frozen and churned into sorbet. Refreshingly sweet and served with some elegantly coloured saffron ice cream, which had a slightly elastic texture from the mastic and salep which was used to make it, this was unlike anything I’ve tried before and all the more exciting for it.
I’m sure there are indeed better Persian restaurants in various corners of London suburbs but it’s fantastic that, among the theatres, steak houses and strip clubs of the West End, someone has introduced a taste of Iran and it would be a shame if people don’t start to embrace it.
Visit Restaurant Website
Address: 17 Garrick Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 9BL
Telephone: 020 7240 7811
Average Price Per Person: £15 - 25