The eggplant’s fantastic, but at Little Iran’s Shomal, meaty kebabs are the measuring sticks of greatness.
In 1963, the Balalaey family opened a restaurant in their hometown of Somee Sara, in Iran’s Gilan province, 20 minutes away from the green shores of the Caspian Sea. They called it Shomal, which means “north” in Farsi, because “going up north” to the Caspian holds the same sweet promise of escape for residents of traffic-choked Tehran as Muskoka does for city-weary Torontonians (plus caviar, a regional staple).
Sixteen years later, the Islamic Revolution marked the end of Shomal’s prosperity. Like most restaurants, they relied heavily on alcohol sales, which were banned. Travel slowed as the economy worsened, and the once-grand hotel restaurant was converted into a bakery, supermarket, and takeout spot. But Iran’s loss would be Toronto’s gain, setting in motion the rebirth of Shomal two decades later, in a plaza at Yonge and Steeles.
Our city’s immigrant restaurateurs aren’t always experienced chefs, which is why it’s a blessing when people like Homayoun Balalaey, the son of Shomal’s owners, open up shop here. Balalaey moved to Toronto in 1992, and seven years after arriving (during which time he operated several pizza and chicken restaurants around the city), he reopened Shomal with his mother, Shahrbanou Ohamirz. “After my father passed away, I asked her if she could continue cooking the way she was used to cooking,” says Balalaey (who also goes by the name Mike Baily). “I’ve never seen anybody who can cook like her. That’s why we’ve been so successful.”
According to census data and recent estimates, Toronto has roughly 50,000 Iranians (or, as many refer to themselves, Persians), who largely began arriving after the Islamic Revolution. That population has increased substantially over the past decade, thanks to improved economic conditions that allowed many to afford visas. Says Balalaey, whose customer base is three-quarters Iranian, “It’s always been a dream for everybody [in Iran] to come to Canada.” Five years after opening, Shomal has doubled in size, and now seats up to 250 diners, plus 80 more on its outdoor patio.
Unlike the other Persian restaurants in North York’s Little Iran (which fans west off Yonge Street, between Finch and Steeles), Shomal specializes in the cuisine of the country’s north. Its décor, which features an indoor waterfall, elaborate murals depicting Gilani landscapes, and replica village façades, works hard to evoke a nostalgic feeling of home.
Even without the stage setting, the food certainly brings you to the shores of the Caspian. Zeitoon parvardeh, an appetizer of marinated green olives tossed in walnut paste, pomegranate syrup, and an imported herb called khali-vash (which only grows in the region), transforms the olive into something sweet and creamy. Kashke bademjan, which Balalaey calls one of Iran’s national foods, is a luscious dish of ultra-tender roast eggplant topped with golden fried-onion strands, whey (a yogurt by-product), crumbled walnuts, and a layer of dried mint. Slather it on freshly baked taftoon flatbread and the mint will soak up the eggplant’s oil, rehydrating into something strong and a little spicy.
Balalaey says that many of his dishes are unique to Shomal. He takes particular pride in Baghala ghatogh, a simple white-bean stew flavoured with garlic, herbs (primarily dill), saffron, and turmeric, which gives it a vibrant yellow colour. Served with a poached egg, it tastes meaty and rich, though it’s entirely vegetarian.
Among the city’s Iranian restaurants, kebabs are the measuring sticks of greatness. “I know every trick in the kitchen to tenderize meat,” he says, “but my secret is that I only buy the best.” Cuts like U.S. Prime veal tenderloin are marinated for hours in onions—or, in the case of chicken thighs, lemon juice, onion, and saffron—then grilled over wood charcoal and seasoned with salt and pepper. The resulting kebabs, served with basmati rice and a charred plum tomato, are juicy and tender.
“I don’t use any kind of sauce, because I like the taste of the meat,” says Balalaey, who advises kebab virgins to mash up the soft tomato and use it as a condiment.
Increasingly, Shomal is drawing diners from outside the Iranian community, including Russians and Arabs who see similarities to their own cuisines. “Our food is very natural,” Balalaey says. “That’s the kind of food you find at home.”
Shomal Restaurant, 100 Steeles Ave. W., #27, 905-881-7704.