Basil Cafe & Restaurant
413 Lake Ave., St. James
SERVICE: Inconsistent, depending on server; either smart-alecky or warm and shepherding
AMBIENCE: Cozy, intimate and modern inside, with a lush back patio.
ESSENTIALS: Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday. No bar, but your own bottles are welcome. Ample street parking. Handicapped accessible, but interior not spacious enough for wheelchairs.
Once upon a time, there was a tiny Persian cafe in a North Shore hamlet whose soltani kebab and saffron chicken were so beloved, and so different from everything else in the area, that people gave it their ultimate form of endearment: “a hidden gem.”
Then, early last year, St. James’ Zar Cafe closed. A “For Sale” sign sprouted in the window. Nearly a year on, chef Ray Akhlaghi — a cousin of Zar’s owners — purchased the Lake Avenue business. Akhlaghi spiffed up the snug dining room and planted even more flowers around the lush back patio, renamed the place Basil Cafe & Restaurant and reopened it in March.
While diners surely will compare Basil Cafe to its predecessor — the food is still Persian and the softly lit, romantic interior retains its black-on-white vibe — the kebabs and saffron chicken that have reappeared are Akhlaghi’s particular versions, and they are only the tip of the menu.
He bills his fare as “Persian-Italian,” and the menu has a split personality: Iranian dishes such as zereshk polo — aka saffron chicken with rice — rub shoulders with pasta, rack of lamb and flatbreads. Akhlaghi scores hits and suffers misses on both ends of the spectrum, but mostly it is his Persian dishes, learned while growing up in Tehran and perfected during his decades as a chef in Boston, that sing.
While Akhlaghi may be a solemn, silent presence in the open kitchen, he brings smoldering intensity to his food via spices such as saffron, pepper, turmeric, coriander and sumac, with occasional hits of mint, barberry and parsley — plus lots of garlic. Laborious, multistep cooking techniques yield unusual textures, too. For instance, his sautéed eggplant appetizer is roasted and peeled before being cooked down into an amorphous dip, topped with crumbled walnuts and blackened mint, that warms you to your toes, each bite leaving a stain of turmeric behind on the plate. Served alongside it is Akhlaghi’s poufy, chewy pita bread — not traditionally Persian, the chef points out, but an able foil for Basil Cafe’s dips and sauces.
The chef’s artfulness emerges in a dramatically upright quartet of spiced shrimp skewers with turmeric-laced sauce oozing down the sides. His crabcakes, served in a slick of mustardy sauce, are excellent: Lump crabmeat, sautéed to a coppery brown, breaks apart at the shyest poke of a fork. And the kitchen seems to revere fresh greens, whether the bouncy-fresh spinach of a salad tumbled with walnuts, minced scallions and tart Mandarin orange wedges (though these are slightly overdressed), or the quartered romaine of a Caesar painted with perpendicular splashes of salty dressing, then showered with Parmesan shards. (Conversely, this salad was slightly underdressed.)
Above all, Akhlaghi is a master of rice. His fluffy, loose, perfumed basmati takes on different faces alongside different slow-roasted meats, almost the way wine changes against competing flavors. Sometimes the rice is creamy and cosseting, as in Akhlaghi’s masterful zereshk polo, a plate of moist, long-marinated chicken breast served with buttery, saffron-laced onions, crumbled pistachios and tart, crunchy barberry seeds. It’s comfort food for every season.
The same rice comes in two tones — white and saffron-hued — on a plate of garlicky soltani, a beef combo of flattened, grilled tenderloin with a floppy, minced beef kebab rife with herbs. Dabs of minty mast-o-khiar, or Iranian yogurt dip, bring this together as a sturdy meal — just ignore the plate’s unnecessary orchid.
Akhlaghi’s pastas, save for one, are forgettable. That one is worth knowing, though: A plate of three-mushroom ravioli layered with sun-dried tomato in a pink-peppercorn cream sauce that tastes neither Italian nor Persian, but like something that might have come from an undiscovered land you’d like to explore.
Also sporting just enough strangeness to seduce is the sticky chocolate bread pudding, with a vein of chocolate, a dusting of Middle Eastern spices and a drizzle of caramel. Like the best dishes here, it somehow tastes indulgent without weighing you down.
Paring down Basil Café’s menu might afford the chef the freedom to polish and expand the dishes he does best — there are hundreds of Italian restaurants on Long Island, after all, but few doing Persian food with panache. Even in its early months, the charming Basil Cafe is bewitching enough to be a keeper.