Ozra, a promising new Persian-Mediterranean restaurant, opened quietly in Little Italy back in early July. It's co-owned by Reza Holland and Mahrdad "Max" Tabasi, who have invested a lot of time, thought and, from the looks of things, money in their renovation of what had been an old bakery building just a few steps down from Vaccaro's Italian Pastry Shop.
Can't quite picture where this is? Don't feel bad. This block of Stiles Street doesn't get a ton of foot traffic. So chances are you'd never just happen upon Ozra.
You'll have to make a point of checking it out. It's certainly one of the prettier restaurants to open this year. This is the kind of understated, human-scaled attractiveness you don't see much these days. Metallic curtains in rust, gold and brown shimmer from the floor to the second-story ceiling. Shelves have been built into the walls for no other purpose than to display rows and rows of glass jars, each one holding a single yellow blooming flower.
There is about Ozra a feeling of graciousness and elegance. Looks matter, and so does hospitality. We got a warm welcome here from the serving staff and from Holland, the co-owner, who all seemed pleased and maybe a bit surprised we had found our way in. There were, on a Saturday night in late August, just a few other tables occupied, including one next to us by a couple who had been three times already and had fallen hard for the lamb chops.
The food is terrific. Start with the eggplant trio, a presentation of three different, and distinct, versions of Mediterranean eggplant purees, or the yogurt trio, which deploys ingredients like cucumber, aged shallots and spinach. Or get both trios, and plan to take some home with you. You could order each kind of eggplant and yogurt separately, but you'll enjoy getting to see, and taste, them all.
It's been a long time since we left a restaurant talking about how much we loved the rice. At Ozra, diners get a choice of rice preparations, or polos, with most main courses. One option is plain basmati rice, another is flavored with dill and fava beans. A third uses sour cherry, and the fourth is flavored with the European barberry, an ingredient loved in Persian cooking as much for the its vivid color as its flavor.
This last rice preparation, known as polo zereshk, adds great visual appeal to a stew of meats or vegetables or a platter of succulent grilled meats, the specialties at Ozra. And the barberry's sharp flavor is a pleasant contrast to the meats' mellowness.
The rice with sour cherry, polo albalo, brings somewhat different notes than the polo zereshk — and the one with fava beans (polo baghali) has very different notes. It hits you later that you might want to think over your rice choice more carefully. Maybe plain rice would work best with the ghormeh sabzi, a stew of vegetables, red beans and sun-dried limes. Probably the polo albalo would be best with the khoresht ghaimeh, a cinnamon-scented stew of split peas, tomatoes and cubed filet mignon.
About those two stews. When they came to the table, we at first mistook one for the other. The meat stew looked bright and sunny; the one with vegetables looked dense, nearly forest-y. We took more quickly to the vegetable stew because it came as the bigger surprise. Here was a vegetarian dish in a restaurant that didn't feel like a penalty. On the other hand, the meat stew got better as it went along. At first it was hard to find the meat; later, you discover the steak is not so much cubed as it has been absorbed fully into stew.
For dessert, there is a feathery light baklava layered with almonds, a nice break from walnuts. And more prettiness, a lemon sorbet, the ice in swirls and strands, served with a cherry compote. When we were there, Ozra was insisting diners try a new cheesecake dessert — they're calling it a New York cheesecake, but it must be something else, a Persian thing. It's everything all at once that you want in a dessert, this cheese cake — somehow light and heavy, sweet and sour in every bite.
We're going back to Ozra, and we're going to get the rice right.
Where: 806 Stiles St., Little Italy
Contact: 410-528-2710, ozrarestaurant.com
Prices: Appetizers $6 -$14 ; entrees $12 -$24
Food: Persian fare including grilled specialties and stews
Service: Attentive and helpful
Best dishes: Eggplant trio, yogurt trio, ghormeh sabzi, polo zereshk
Parking/Accessibility: Street parking and convenient garage parking. The restaurant is fully accessible to wheelchair users.
Children: There are no special accommodations for children.
Noise level: The noise level is comfortable. There are no television sets.
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very Good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star]