I’ve been at Sahara Restaurant in Richardson when the staff sits at the end of the night, sharing a family meal—tea set out in glasses and plates filled with tempting things—Persian pop music swirling around them. And I understand, in that moment, that they may be the most fortunate people in town.
The family that has owned the place for 17 years graciously minds the small details of a sophisticated cuisine that’s famously hard to find—and even harder to find like this. The menu is built around owner Bahman Derakhshan’s family recipes from Tehran, beautifully executed. And while it may appear humble from the outside, sandwiched between businesses that will offer you loans, auto insurance, a foot massage, or customized cakes, its traditional Persian recipes come from a culture long adept at sophisticated banquets: stuffing birds with rice and swirling gold into saffron-infused, aromatic rice.
Tabbouli is flecked deep emerald green with parsley. Dolmas are soft, more yield and give than resist. There is minted cucumber yogurt. The feta is musky and the Sahara potato salad—with Persian pickles and shredded chicken, creamy, garlicky, and wonderful—has tang. All are perfect expressions of Persian food, to be assembled (the price points are accessibly low) and shared. And there is no mistaking the eggplant dip, kashk-e bademjan, with caramelized onions and a tantalizing muskiness from whey. Once you’ve had it, the memory flits about in your head for days.
At lunch, a buffet includes the fire-kissed hillocks of kabobs. But at dinner, the whole flame-grilled Cornish hen, which the menu calls chicken anari, and which differs from anything I’ve seen in other Persian restaurants around, is reason enough to come. Ask for it accompanied by the saffron rice with barberries, which is enchanting, every slender grain plump with fragrance. It has tiny barberries—tart pops—and streaks of golden saffron. In this enchantment of a dish, grilled tomatoes are falling-apart soft, and the centerpiece, the fowl, is moist and attractively blackened. Sweet-tart pomegranate molasses sauce contours the flame-grilled meat. Like tart candies, caramelized onions add twang.
As at places such as the far more elaborately decorated Kasra, you can get typical Persian stews: dark and brooding gorhesabzi, with herbs and beef and beans; or gheimeh bademjan, the one with lentils, tomatoes, and eggplant. They have tadik, rice that’s crisped in the bottom of a pan, for those who know to ask for it. But not on the night I visited recently. Would it come out as the perfect crusted golden dome? Most likely. And always the sabzi: the whole herbs bring life to a meal.
Sip the homemade yogurt drink, doogh, flecked with dried mint. It’s not over: there is homemade saffron ice cream studded with pistachios, humble, but good, like the unforced hospitality. Sahara is also a shop with a display street cart and stocked shelves. You want to come back. Which you can—tomorrow, for the lunch buffet.