2057 Merrick Rd., Merrick
AMBIENCE: Intimate yet casual, this neighborhood Middle Eastern restaurant specializes in Persian dishes and a polished experience.
ESSENTIALS: Lunch and dinner 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; takeout, delivery, major credit cards, wheelchair-accessible, party area.
In 2013, Ali Motamedi bought Azerbaijan Grill in East Meadow from a family friend, updated the space, assembled an Eastern Mediterranean menu studded with Persian classics and named the place Sufiya’s Grill for his newborn daughter. This past August, he opened the second location, just before the birth of his second child.
Like any new addition to the family, the new restaurant draws supporters wanting to help and offer advice. One night with Motamedi behind the bar pouring wine, a couple whom he clearly knew asked details about the terms of the lease. Once their concerns were put to rest, they doted on the décor and gushed over the food. A solo diner — a local — sat a few seats down and joined the conversation. They offered her tastes of their dishes, remarking on the vast portions. Later, the diner declared Sufiya’s Grill in Merrick her favorite new hangout.
This location is as warm as a neighborhood stalwart, enveloping first-time patrons as if they were regulars. An overhaul of the space that used to be Nicholas James Bistro gives way to warm lighting, mosaic designs and window treatments that dress up intimate alcoves. This isn’t a bare-bones family joint, nor is it a loud, sceney restaurant.
Persian dishes and meat entrees are the most satisfying choices, compared to vegetables and pan-Mediterranean options such as hummus or falafel. What’s clear is that it’s Motamedi’s priority to offer diners value and volume, and to introduce them to a couple unusual dishes and drinks.
Take the wines by the glass, which start with a Kavaklidere Yakut — a food-friendly Turkish red — as well as a Cankaya white that’s crisp and round with a hint of fruit (both $8). For nostalgia’s sake, there’s also easy-drinking Efes, a Turkish beer. It helps to develop a strategy for ordering lunch or dinner, unless you’re prepared for the delivery of more food than you’re prepared to eat in one sitting. As mezze, consider the smoky kashkeh badenjan, an Iranian dish of ground eggplant with tomatoes, topped with a spoonful or two of yogurt so good you will smear every last bit onto warm, charred flatbread that comes to the table in a never-ending parade.
Falafel shaped like patties are tempting, but they’re not the best of the mezze. On one visit the starter was overhandled and a bit hard, drizzled with tahini. On another visit the falafel on the entree were light with a crisp exterior, paired with rich hummus and grilled vegetables suitable for dipping.
Baba ganoush is thick and chunky, layered with tahini and garlic, while grape leaves are tight and bright, served with lemon. Shirazi salad refreshes with diced tomato, cucumber and red onion, doused with lemon and heavily seasoned with fresh parsley. Turshi — Iranian pickled carrots, beans and cauliflower along with olives — are a fine snack to ready a palate for a meat feast.
These recipes come from here and there, Motamedi says — from family members and friends whose cooking he admires. The barg kebabs marinate for 24 hours in garlic, onion, saffron and olive oil. Then they’re grilled on skewers and served atop saffron-laced basmati rice, with sides of sumac and herbed yogurt. Lamb kebab — same sides — are especially flavorful. But my weakness is jujeh: bone-in Cornish hen, a kebab seasoned with orange and honey, meat bright with saffron.
That Iranian saffron colors the house-made ice cream that would likely please a child like Sufiya — or perhaps your own. Fragrant with rosewater, served in a stemmed glass, chances are, you’ll like it, too.