Savor the Silk Road at Arezu, a Vegan Persian Restaurant in the Brewery District

The new Persian food pop-up Arezu combines the talents and energies of a mother and son team.

Erin Edwards
Columbus Monthly
Amir Salem with his mother and chef Afagh Salem at Arezu

Last decade, Double Happiness (482 S. Front St.) was a one-of-a-kind music venue—a hip combination of Asian kitsch (red lanterns, golden Buddhas, a TV playing B-movies) and Brewery District chic (oodles of exposed brick in a funky, shotgun-style space). The venue’s food was memorable too, with skewered meats from a Japanese pop-up called FreshStreet Yakitori. But in 2017, owner Yalan Papillons shuttered the quirky bar to focus on her reiki practice and raising her child.

This year, Double Happiness has returned to booking bands, with a new kitchen

concept in tow: Arezu, open Thursday through Saturday.

Working the front-of-house at this Persian food pop-up is Amir Salem, a lanky bundle of positive energy. He was a customer at the old Double Happiness, and a chance meeting with Papillons in fall 2020 led to the collaboration.

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“I think the world right now needs a place where people can come and feel welcome and feel love and feel all that good energy,” Salem recalls her telling him. She also said something that, in hindsight, felt like serendipity: “How cool would it be to have a mom in the kitchen?”

So, Salem pitched the idea of opening a Persian food pop-up inside the bar, enlisting his mom, Afagh, as the cook. The mother of four raised her children in a refugee camp after fleeing Iran for Germany at age 34. Afagh and her kids eventually immigrated to the U.S. in 2000.

Salem says it took a little persuading to get his mom to adapt her family recipes for a mostly vegan menu. (Cheese and yogurt are used sparingly.) The decision to focus on vegan Persian fare was primarily an environmental one, he says.

Dishes at Arezu

Start your meal at Arezu (which loosely translates to “desire”) with the wonderful Persian dolmeh ($10)–little purses of seasoned, tomatoey rice stuffed in grape leaves.

One must-order entrée is the koobideh kebab ($16), a pair of tender and flavorful kebabs that will fool you into thinking the beef is real and not a vegan substitute—in this case, Impossible Foods ground beef. (The trick to getting plant-based meat to stick to kebab skewers is to make sure the skewers are very, very cold, Salem says.) The grilled “meat” comes paired with fragrant rice and grilled tomatoes, which are essential.

For a taste of a truly ancient Persian dish, order the ghormeh sabzi, a “5,000-year-old recipe” of stewed kidney beans and herbs (such as fenugreek and parsley) that is often considered Iran’s national dish. The dish gets a sour note from dried Persian limes.

I recommend pairing the kebabs or the stew with what Arezu calls Jewelry Rice ($4). Typically known as Persian jeweled rice for its colorful toppings, nonvegan versions are often quite buttery, though that’s not the case here. This made-for-Instagram rice platter is decorated with flavor and fragrance in the form of candied orange peels (flown in from Iran), pistachios, barberries, raisins and almonds.

Tea with honey pistachio candies made at Arezu

If two of you are dining, I recommend ordering the Great Bazaar ($50), designed to give a broad overview of Arezu’s offerings. I also recommend you ask if tea is available, which is usually served with Arezu’s sweet pistachio brittle (aka sohan). The pairing makes for a nice little postscript to the meal.

In short: The vegan food served at Arezu is lovely, but it’s the hospitality from Salem and his mother that will have you cheering for their success.

Arezu

482 S. Front St.,
Brewery District
(inside Double Happiness), 567-333-0265

This story is from the November 2021 issue of Columbus Monthly.