Jelfar sounds like something out of Aladdin’s cave – a golden sword? a silver lantern? a precious gem? Yes, a gem. A hidden gem. Food bloggers, foodies and gluttonous adventurers alike dine at obscure wayside eateries, hole-in-the-walls, dumps, and dives in the hope of finding such hidden gems. Although I have slowed my pace in recently years, I typically visit around 250 new restaurants every year. If I am lucky, I will find maybe one or two hidden gems among them – in a whole year! Jelfar Café on Al Sabkha Road in Neif is my most recent discovery and I am eternally grateful to my friend and Iranian food guru, @mansoormadani, HRH the King of Kong, for taking me there.
Located in an Al Sabkha by-street (where Chicket Fried Chicken is), Jelfar Café is unapologetically unrefined; it’s rough, it’s uncut and raw, it’s agonizingly beautiful in the same way Mick Jagger is handsome. This Thumbelina sized café looks exactly like the Iranian bazaari teahouse it is – exactly. It is split between a semi-boxed off L-shaped outdoor seating area (for shisha and tea), an even smaller indoor seating area (also L-shaped, where shisha and tea are also served) and a private dining area on the first-floor landing where one of the two kitchens are located. And if you think this sounds small, you should see the claustrophobic spiral staircase leading up/down. But you know that saying…good things come in small packages.
Mansoor, who comes from one of the most prominent families in the South of Iran, is referred to as “Sheikh” and treated like royalty. As a result, we are shown up to their private dining area. I don’t do well in confined spaces. It takes an effort to stop myself from hyperventilating while climbing the clingy stairs. The smoky landing we are seated in doesn’t help me much because the window is on the opposite, kitchen side, of the room. Yeah, the private dining area shares space with the kitchen. But then I see where the smoke is coming from – a little mangal where they are preparing their famous chenjeh kabab for us.
Chenjeh is a simple, back to basics kabab, usually made with lamb, which relies on the quality of meat rather than any fancy spices or marinates. Like most other Iranian kababs, the meat is skewered and cooked over hot coals. Done right it is arguably the best of the Iranian kababs and easily my preference over the more famous and over-hyped kabab barg. Jelfar’s version of chenjeh is sensational, the best I have had outside Iran. It has an added touch of limoo amani (dried lime) and black pepper giving it a slightly tangy taste. Thankfully they’ve resisted doing a full Lari or Bahraini where both those spices are dominant to the point that you don’t taste the meat anymore. Here they subtly enhance the flavour of the lamb. These boys simply call it kabab. And just to prove a point, it is the only kabab on their unpublished menu. There are a small number other dishes they also make, like chicken stew, fried chicken and potato coocoo, but they pale in comparison.
Jelfar Café is run by five brothers who live together next door to the café. They cook everything (except the kababs) at home, so you really get that sense of home cooked food. Like Ostadi, the interaction of the brothers with the customers is very much part of what this little café is about – it’s a homely, family affair and very, very South Iranian. So much so that you don’t hear very much Farsi spoken; and when it is, it’s in that sing-song southern drawl. Achomi or Khodmooni, a term literally meaning “part of ourselves”, is what is spoken here and just adds to its authenticity. Shisha is another reason Jelfar is famous, but you’ll need to find out why yourself – I refuse to promote smoking. All in all, I loved this little café. If you are looking to try one of the best Iranian kababs (outside Iran) in a typical local teahouse / café, I can think of no other place in Dubai better than Jelfar Café.
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Xerxes physically dines at, or orders from, each and every venue he reviews. He pays in full for whatever he and his companions eat, drink, take away or occasionally throw at each other. Xerxes accepts no money, gifts, discounts or free meals in return for reviews or favouritism. What you have read was NOT influenced in any way by the venue. Join his culinary journey on Instagram: @ravenousxerxes or reach out to him via email on email@example.com.