As you step into Kookoo, a Persian diner nestled in the midst of pizza joints and Indian restaurants in Surbiton, you feel as if you have been teleported to Iran. The whiff of aromatic tea and freshly baked baklava, the mist from hookahs and the Persian beats playing in the background are just some of the tricks up the restaurant’s sleeve.
After restaurateur Kamaran Abtahi rebranded the 14-year-old eatery known as ‘Sarab’ three months ago, the restaurant became an award winning one.
The award was given by the judges at the Asian Restaurant Awards, organised by the Asian Catering Federation, in March. One judge said: “This is better than any central London Persian restaurant I’ve eaten at.”
Abtahi was surprised with the recognition and said: “It was unexpected and to be named as a winner alongside Michelin-starred ‘Hakkasan’ and ‘Darjeeling Express’ was amazing.”
Abtahi credited his customers, his experience and the support of his team.
“It is about the whole Persian experience that I want my customers to get,” he said.
“Word of mouth spreads so quickly around south-west London. Offering a modern menu with tailored options has been a great decision and we’re booked up every weeknight and weekend.”
Abtahi, who moved to the UK 12 years ago and was previously head chef at The Piano in Chiswick and Doost in Kensington, wasn’t happy with the previous menu. He added authentic recipes and dishes, which then became customer favourites such as the lamb kebabs marinated in their homemade pomegranate sauce.
The main challenge was to stay close to Iranian culture and taste as well as appeal to the Western palate by giving classic dishes a “modern gourmet twist”. The new menu includes option for vegans and those who are gluten-free, but it also incorporates centuries-old recipes passed down by Abtahi’s ancestors.
“My inspiration is driven by my passion for authentic Persian food. I always want to understand the food from the source. In the end, it’s all about going back to your roots,” Abtahi said.
Kookoo is a luxurious restaurant with a loyal following, a Persian manager who will remember your face even after months, and decor which includes intricate gold carvings and ‘jharokhas’ or shelves.
The catchy name was inspired by a traditional dish made during Nowruz or Persian New Year which is baked with vegetables.
“We always serve a sample of the dish to our non-Iranian customers so they understand our ethos,” Abtahi said.
One of the obstacles Abtahi encountered in the attempt to be completely authentic was to find ingredients in the UK. “Some products such as saffron, barberries and pomegranate molasses have to be sourced from Iran as we want the best quality,” he said.
Another USP of the restaurant is the rice cooked with saffron, best twinned with a seafood or mixed meat platter. Abtahi said his personal favourite is the cinnamon and cardamom Persian tea.
The fresh bread that accompanies meals is also very popular.“It’s freshly baked, similar to a ‘lavash’, but with more heft, and lots of primordial flavor of its own,” Abtahi said.
A finishing touch is the ‘Bastani’ ice cream, made with pistachios and rose water.
Even after using rich ingredients, Kookoo has maintained street food prices. Abtahi said the economy is not working in the restaurant’s favour due to the surge in rent and cost prices but he said he would not increase the prices on the menu.
“Surbiton residents are hard to impress. If we made it more expensive, we would lose business,” he said.
He also attributed Kookoo’s success to the personal touch.
As a lady walked in, Abtahi recognized her. “I served you lamb kebabs and grilled halloumi a month ago while we spoke about Irish food,” he said, adding: “This is what brings customers back – the experience and hospitality.”