September 22, 2020
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Persian Persuasion

Backed by her husband’s heritage and her comfort in the kitchen, Penny Nejad takes a chance in downtown Newburgh
Shepherd salad platter: kalamata olives, feta cheese, fresh sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, pita bread, hummus, and mumarrah dip.

State Street nosedives toward the Ohio River in downtown Newburgh. Two- and three-story buildings packed tightly together line the street. Children’s boutiques sit near antique furniture stores. A small Italian market nestles by a stained glass shop. A red telephone booth stands by the library. On this chilly evening, the whole scene is a real-life snow globe yet to be shaken with winter fluff.

My friends and I dash from State Street to Jennings Street into a former 1800s icehouse rehabbed several times over — most recently as a restaurant, Café Arazu. The atmosphere is welcoming. Exposed brick walls mesh with the hardwood floor. Tables removed from a corner create space needed for a guitar-playing songstress to perform later. Dashes of color sprout from the low-hanging modern light fixtures. On one wall are hookah pipes and colorful Middle Eastern cloths, items collected during owner Penny Nejad’s world travels.

As the sixth of nine children, Nejad hit the kitchen as soon as her mother returned to work. The Pennsylvania native made home-style food — big on casseroles. When she met her future husband Ben, a Persian, he introduced his wife to a world of lavosh, tandoori, and curry. In 1993, Ben transferred to Evansville for a job in the plastics industry, and Nejad, a onetime pastry chef at a hotel in upstate New York, became a stay-at-home mom for her three children.

In 2008, with her children grown — and a recession that affected everyone — Nejad looked for job opportunities. Fascinated with world cultures, Nejad had studied art and history education. She envisioned herself a connector, a bridge to understanding other global traditions. On a walk with a friend one spring day in 2009, Nejad passed a historic building. It oozed charm, she thought, and the “For Sale” sign prompted possibility. “I’m a big believer in Newburgh, in general,” Nejad says, “and this place became available.” That space transformed into Nejad’s vision — a world mixing Persian, Indian, and Mediterranean dishes with her roots in her mother’s Pennsylvania kitchen creating suburban comfort food.

During my visit, we began with the wine menu with more than 40 selections, and the beer menu is equally as impressive. The appetizers sound recognizable such as the bruschetta and spinach artichoke dip. We chose the latter, a hot dip with grated Parmesan cheese served with warm pita bread or lavosh, a Middle Eastern bread I would come to obsess over. Lavosh tastes like naan bread, an Indian leavened flatbread. Indians and Persians “still share a lot of the same names for food,” says Nejad. She uses lavosh brilliantly throughout her menu, and during lunch, the soft and lightly charred bread is the wrap for many sandwiches.

At night, my entree was the tandoori butter chicken. The chicken pieces — a mild version of Buffalo wings with moments of spice — are accented with a creamy, colorful tandoori sauce, which mixes wonderfully with jasmine rice. The side of garlic potato wedges came with an intriguing house-made chipotle sauce with intense flavor.

This is meat-and potatoes land, and if you have a cantankerous friend who basks in familiar foods, Café Arazu is a place accommodating such a stickler. Take, for example, the Caesar salad, a safe bet. Ordered by my friend who loves home-cooked meals, he enjoyed the dish — a large, crisp lettuce wedge and a side of Caesar dressing. Nejad’s menu offers plenty for the trepid: marinated beef kebobs, a hamburger called the “J” Street NewBurgher, and a broiled, mustard-crusted salmon. The latter was a honking helping of salmon coated with a whole grain, white wine mustard. Grey Poupon it’s not. It’s light, thin, and subtle.  

Nejad designed her menu to be inclusive, and she refuses to throw the word “authentic” around. Persians “do more with herbs then I think Americans are ready for here,” Nejad says. Her in-laws, too, point out the differences in her dishes and the cooking from the Middle East, but authenticity isn’t a requirement for remarkable food. “It’s not that I think I have the best way,” Nejad says. “I just thought this is a chance I have to take.” 

It’s a chance worth visiting on a cold night — or any time of day.  

Café Arazu
Location: 17 W. Jennings St., Newburgh • Phone:  812-842-2200 • Hours: Open: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tues.-Sun. Closed Mon. • Adult Beverages: Yes • Prices: $8-$15 • Reservations: Yes • Payment: Major credit cards accepted (no American Express)

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