Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood, one of the most diverse dining areas in town, has over the years developed a Persian corridor of sorts around Kedzie and Lawrence avenues, with casual staples like Noon O Kebab, Kabobi, and Persian Grill. That stretch gained a prominent new entrant this week with the opening of Maman Zari, a seasonal fine-dining restaurant featuring the city’s — and, it seems, the country’s — first Persian tasting menu.
The debut project from an Iranian American flight attendant-turned-restaurateur Mariam Shahsavarani, Maman Zari opened Thursday, July 27 at 4639 N. Kedzie Avenue. A tribute to Shahsavarani’s late grandmother Zahra, the restaurant seeks to expand upon the groundwork laid by pre-existing Persian restaurants without detracting from their business.
“I really wanted to be in Albany Park but didn’t want to come in and compete with what existed,” says Shahsavarani, a suburban Chicago native with strong family ties to Iran. “[I wanted] to do something where we weren’t competing, bring something new to the area, and make ourselves a destination near similar restaurants and grocery stores.”
Maman Zari’s menu, created by veteran Italian chef Matteo Lo Bianco (Volare, Coco Pazzo, Francesca’s), is indeed a stark departure with a pair of nine-course tasting menus — one with meat, the other vegetarian — that marry classical Persian flavors to contemporary fine-dining aesthetics. A summer opening neatly translates into courses like abdoogh khiar, a cold cucumber yogurt soup gilded with walnuts, raisins, and fresh herbs; salad-e hendevaneh with compressed watermelon, mint, and dewy balsamic pearls; and unlisted extras like delicate saffron-laced chips Lo Bianco developed to mimic the flavor and texture of crispy tahdig.
Patrons can opt to add a wine pairing to their meal, or order from a smattering of white and red wines by the glass or bottle. There’s also a tight menu of cocktails, each named for the Iranian city where its primary ingredient originates. Shahsavarani has a special affinity for the Arak Arak — both the city (in the singular) where her grandparents were born and a spirit made from grapes and aniseed. The cocktail also includes watermelon, in a nod to her cousin who tends a watermelon field just outside the city.
An intermingling of past and present extends throughout the restaurant, which seats 38 in a dining room that juxtaposes geometric lattice designs — a feature of classic Iranian architecture — and a vintage Persian carpet with colorful contemporary paintings from Shahsavarani’s aunt, Iranian artist Farideh Shahsavarani. The team integrated a color scheme of brilliant blue and plum red into the space, drawing inspiration from the traditional homes of Kashan in the northern region of Isfahan province.
Though she was born and raised near Oak Park, Shahsavarani wields a formidable knowledge of Persian cuisine, language, and culture, accrued throughout her youth speaking Farsi at home and spent trading visits with her late grandparents. From the tender age of four, she traveled to spend time with them in Tehran and on their orchard in Mazandaran, near the Caspian Sea. In turn, they came to Chicago each summer, taking up residence above the family’s catering company in Noble Square. That familial connection evolved into an academic interest, and at 22, Shahsavarani went on to spend nine months traveling in Iran and studying Farsi.
Maman Zari’s approach seems to be a singular one, both locally and nationally. “There’s nothing like this in the country that I’ve found — a cross between the food I’ve had at home and [upscale] restaurants I’ve been to throughout Iran,” says Shahsavarani. Though the menu is currently attuned to northern Iran, the once-vast expanse of ancient Persia will give Lo Bianco the flexibility to introduce courses rooted in a variety of regions, spanning from the Balkans and Egypt to Central Asia’s Indus Valley.
“There’s such rich food history throughout the Persian empire,” she says. “We’re using ‘Persian’ specifically because the empire at one time encompassed so many different countries. That gives us room to move and grow, and bring in a greater variety of dishes.”
Maman Zari, 4639 N. Kedzie Avenue, Open 5:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.