Last month, Josh's Deli in Surfside was transformed into the Saffron Supper Club. The lights were turned down, and the duck prosciutto and smoked salmon were tucked away. Candles covered the long diner counter, and an infatuating aroma of nutty rice tahdig greeted dinners.
This was the second installment of a dinner series hosted by Miami writer Sara Liss and Maude Eaton, a food and beverage consultant and co-founder of South Florida Foodies. Diners purchased tickets online, and for $60, they experienced an evening of Persian music, food and literature.
Supper clubs might be one way to address a culinary longing in South Florida. The area is home to people from diverse national backgrounds, with pockets of Vietnamese, Pakistanis, Filipinos, Ecuadorians and Chileans who may find only a smattering of restaurants that represent their culture in the area. Sometimes folks just crave their own kind of soul food, whether that's Korean food in San Francisco, or a Cuban sandwich made the Miami way.
Instead of lamenting the lack of Persian restaurants, Liss and Eaton decided to explore Persian culture and cuisine by cooking some up for themselves.
Between courses, Liss and Eaton explained the dishes and their ingredients. "Tahdig", Eaton told diners, "is a true art form. It is served for special guests in Iran and is a true measure of a cook's skill." The bottom layer of the basmati rice dish is pressed down as it steams, so it develops a golden brown crust around the edges of the pot.
The rice at Saffron Supper Club was fluffy, but the clusters of golden, crispy rice were the best part, like the satisfying crust that hardens around the edges of the stone bowl in Korean bibimbap.
Eaton was previously married to a Persian man, and so her children are half-Persian. "The culture is rich with the essence of community, sharing and, of course, entertaining," she says, "The Persians are royals when it comes to entertaining guests. I learned this as a young wife and hostess, and the joy of cooking and inviting friends to my table never left me."
Other dishes served included a blini appetizer (topped with sheaves of salmon pastrami from Josh's Deli, along with cream and pomegranate seeds), dill rice with fava beans and lamb, and koresht-e fsenjan, or braised chicken in a slightly tangy walnut and pomegranate molasses sauce. Catherine Hinds, the pastry chef at Josh's Deli, made Persian chiffon cake (also known as Persian love cake) with candied rose petals, pistachios and saffron ice cream.
Except for dessert, Eaton and Liss did most of the shopping and cooking for the meal, which took them about two days. Eaton says, "There's not too much frying or sautéeing, as the food is all mostly braised or grilled. So in the time it takes to braise a perfect stew, the cook can make all the delicious sides. "
In between courses at Saffron Supper Club, read a passage from The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1,001 Nights. At the first dinner, she read a poem in Farsi. "For us," she says, "it's not just about the food but about creating an experience through the food. Sharing these stories --which are often very strange and a little unexpected--are things I would do if I were hosting a dinner at my home."
Liss, who is the editor of Urban Daddy Miami, grew up speaking Farsi and eating many of the dishes she's helped cook for Saffron Supper Club: "I consider myself Persian. My mother is from Iran--we are Jewish--and most of her family managed to relocate to the States in the late 1970's. In a way, I am educating myself about the food and traditions that I took for granted growing up. I felt an instant connection with Maude and her enthusiasm for the cooking so, after talking about it, we decided to just go for it."
Since they like to shift locations, Eaton and Liss are considering other spots in town like a rooftop in the Design District or a backyard barbecue at a boutique hotel in South Beach for future events. The "two girls in love with food and culture and especially the foods of the Middle East" plan to expand the menu to other countries in the Middle East too. They would also like to invite chefs and bartenders to help craft new meals.
Keep an eye on their Facebook page, Saffron Supper Club, for updates on future events. Hopefully these will also include the bewitching tahdig.