Northwestern specialties like veal-beef kebabs, rose-infused drinks and jam, and rich stews served in clay vessels are on the menu at this family-run eatery
Herby (397 Danforth, at Chester, 416-466-9933, herbyrestaurant.com) is a family-run restaurant dedicated to homestyle Iranian cuisine.
Herbi is also the name of a picturesque small town known for its fields of roses near Tabriz, the biggest city in the Azeri Turkish-speaking province of East Azerbaijan, where owner Javad Zahedifar grew up.
Zahedifar had been searching for a name for his new business, and late one night, before the new restaurant opened, inspiration struck. “I took my cell phone and searched for Herby on my phone, with different spellings, and I found this spelling that means ‘drinks or food with herb taste’ [in English].”
It was a serendipitous choice for a restaurant that has two main goals: Show off traditional northwestern recipes culled from Zahedifar’s hometown, and put fresh produce and meats at the forefront of each dish.
Zahedifar created Herby to introduce Toronto to the recipes he learned from his mom and grandma, who helped him become an avid cook from an early age. When he went to university as an agriculture student, the Iranian revolution of the late 70s was brewing. Classes were frequently cancelled due to protests – so he’d have all his friends and classmates back to his place for a meal.
When Zahedifar immigrated to Canada in 2009, friends urged him to go into the restaurant business. He took over an Iranian takeout spot at Yonge and Finch and set about adding new recipes and upgrading the quality of the ingredients.
They soon had a steady following, but Zahedifar had always dreamed of having a sit-down restaurant. He sold the business in 2017 this year, he set his sights on the Danforth and set up shop in what was previously Sushi Friends.
“I’m a risky man. I knew I’d have lots of competition – from very famous restaurants,” Zahedifar says. “But I believe in my job.”
Zahedifar and his family decked the place out with little pieces of home, including tons of handmade ceramics and photos by his son-in-law, a former photojournalist – including one of his niece picking roses at a farm in Herbi.
Those roses also end up in rose drinks and jam. Zahedifar also imports grains, pulses and other ingredients directly from the farms near his hometown.
“I wanted to do homemade food, not commercial food, because I believe food is very important,” he says. “Food is a culture, food is health, food is love. Food is everything for everybody.”
Shovaran is a classic hot-weather drink that mixes rosewater, lemon and a little brown sugar with organic teff grain.
The restaurant’s top seller is the sampler tray for two ($38), which features two choices of stew, two apps and a portion of grilled meats.
Tava kebab (shown here with grilled chicken on top) is a pancake-like oven-roasted kebab made with a blend of veal and beef. It’s a regional speciality from Tabriz Zahedifar says he’s not aware of any other restaurants in North America that serve it.
Shirazi salad (below right) is made with chopped cucumber, tomato, onion and parsley it’s used more as a condiment than eaten on its own. Ghormeh sabzi (below left), a stew rich with sautéed herbs, is made the way they do it near Tabriz – with black-eyed peas instead of red beans. Fesenjan (top left) is a stew made with ground walnuts, pomegranate molasses, and pomegranate juice for extra flavour. Zahedifar says it’s a favourite with Toronto diners.
Kashk e bademjan is a dip made with oven-roasted eggplant, yogurt-based sauce, walnuts, fried onions, black sesame, mint and spices. Zahedifar gets his barbari bread (below right) from Salamat Bakery in Thornhill.
Piti ($18) is a savoury meat stew normally made with mutton or goat – Zahedifar uses Ontario lamb leg. It’s simmered with chickpeas, potatoes, tomatoes and spices and served in a traditional clay vessel (also called a piti) along with a mallet.
Generally, Zahedifar says, you pour the broth into the accompanying bowl and eat that with bits of bread, then use the mallet to pound the meats and veggies together and eat them next.