Back in Azerbaijan, baking was a sacred, communal activity for Ilhama Safarova. Long before she started a bakery in Adams Morgan, Safarova would bond with friends and family in the hours it took for them to follow old recipes from around the Caucasus for pastries such as pakhlava, an Azerbaijani treat similar to baklava that gets sweetened with simple syrup rather than honey. At Sharbat, which opened on the 2400 block of 18th Street NW in July, Safarova wanted to bring customers a taste of her country, located on the coast of the Caspian Sea in between the Republic of Georgia, Russia, and Iran.
“We decided to bake pastries that we like to bake and eat back home,” Safarova says. “People who have ever lived [in] or know the cultures of old Soviet Union countries could find familiar pastries at this shop.”
Safarova immigrated to D.C. nearly two years ago so her daughter, Shukrana, could live out her dream of attending college in America. But the move was also an opportunity for Ilhama to pursue a burning dream of her own: opening a business that would showcase the work-intensive sweets from her home in the capital city of Baku. Sharbat, for example, is named after a traditional Azerbaijani drink prepared with fruits and herbs.
The bakery, which used to house Spoon, remained fairly quiet near the end of the summer, but Safarova stayed busy preparing batches of cakes and savory or sweet pastries for customers who strolled inside the pristinely clean, loft-style space.
One dish alone might require hours of painstaking effort. Shukrana, a student at the University of District of Columbia who helps her mother at the bakery in between virtual classes, says it takes almost four hours just to make a batch of pakhlava. Mother and daughter roll at least 15 sheets of dough until they’re thin enough to stack, then use a knife to trace diamond shapes through a large, circular pan before baking.
Compared to the heavy, dense desserts that consume American menus, Azerbaijani pastries are light and airy. The bakers at Sharbat say that’s because they use limited amounts of sugar and rely on nuts to enhance rich flavors. Shekerbura, a crescent moon-shaped pastry with a crumbly, intricately designed shell, is stuffed with ground hazelnuts. Pakhlava contains hazelnuts and walnuts.
Cakes, Sharbat’s specialty, are available in 12 varieties. That includes double chocolate cake, carrot cake, and Bird Milk, a chocolate sponge cake. Safarova’s honey cake is the bakery’s most popular item. Shukrana says raves for her mother’s specialty were the impetus behind opening Sharbat. A light cream filling whipped on the stovetop sets it apart.
“My mom started making the honey [cake] for just her and I, but when other people started trying it, they were talking about how good it was,” she says. “It was different from the honey cake they’ve had before.”
Customers who don’t have a sweet tooth or an affinity for nuts still have options at Sharbat. Savory options include a xachapuri with flaky, buttery layers of dough that surround a strudel-like pastry stuffed with tangy feta cheese. On the weekends, the bakery offers a small morning menu that includes the Village Breakfast, a smorgasbord of beef sausage, eggs, olives, tomato, cucumber, avocado, egg, mascarpone, and sweetened tea. The platter also comes with a goghal, a black sesame bun spiced with cumin, anise, and black pepper.
Opening the bakery and cafe came with challenges from the onset. Sharbat was set to start welcoming customers in March, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced Safarova to delay until July, shortly after the city allowed limited indoor seating.
“Starting a business is a challenge [within] itself, but the pandemic makes it harder,” Safarova says. “There are very limited ways for advertising. There are a lot of people who barely go outside and eat out. So, even if your shop is in a good location, there is still a challenge. I’ve personally never seen Adams Morgan this empty before.”
Sharbat Bakery & Cafe (2473 18th St. NW) is open for dine-in and takeout every day from 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., and customers can call or email the bakery for pre-orders and custom cake orders.