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A One-Man Show Runs This Promising Persian Restaurant in Columbia Heights

Hospitality vet Yahya Sardari showcases slow-cooked meats, cornerstone starters, and family recipes at Kookoo

Kookoo opened in Columbia Heights in late 2023.

Radish, walnut, feta, and parsley: even before orders are placed and water is poured at Columbia Heights newcomer Kookoo, this welcome-home appetizer platter arrives at the table from the hands of its owner Yahya Sardari.

The Iranian restaurateur opened this living room of a Persian place in late 2023, transforming his shuttered coffee shop Coffy Café into the eatery of his dreams (3310 14th Street NW). Kookoo melds the sweet, sour, tart, and savory flavors intrinsic in Persian cuisine, beginning with that sabzi khordan starter — the epitome of Sardari’s homey style and a nod to hospitality from a man several times removed from his homeland.

Meals at Kookoo kick off with the Iranian staple sabzi khordan.
Evan Caplan/Eater DC

A teenager studying in Europe when the 1979 Iranian Revolution shook the world, Sardari found himself a refugee in France when his family fled Tehran. Once they eventually immigrated to the U.S., Sardari moved to Boston to finish school and start his career, and later relocated to D.C. to be closer to extended relatives.

As a longtime hospitality vet, Sardari has worked it all: hotels to fine dining to a big-name burger chain (more on that later). In 2015 he opened daytime cafe Coffy, yet without the Persian soul that he yearned to serve. When the pandemic hit and business tanked, he closed the shop for more than a year, poured his savings into a refurbishment and rebranding, and opened Kookoo.

Named for an iconic Persian egg-and-herb dish, Kookoo “is food from the home,” he says. “It’s what you might get if you came to eat with my family.” Recipes stem from his mother and grandmother (“she was a good cook,” he notes). A photo of relatives dating back to 1935 oversees traditional dishes gracing plates in the back dining room.

Sardari strives to bring homestyle, cozy Persian food to a block better known for its fast-casual chains. Running both front and back of house, he makes sure to visit every table with that sabzi khordan at the top of the meal. “I go around and talk to people and teach them how to eat it,” he says. “Not like a salad, more like a sandwich. You take the pita and eat each element.”

One major component of the cafe-turned-restaurant refresh was the addition of a sturdy gas grill and hood, which has made all the difference. The deep char is evident across kebabs (beef, chicken, and salmon), and the fire-licked eggplant has the heat of the gas flame to thank for rendering the vegetable almost black.

Ceramic pots of braised meats arrive alongside rice.
Evan Caplan/Eater DC

The opening menu leans in on spreads and dips, served alongside fluffy bread and shatteringly crisp, homemade pita chips dusted with za’atar and sumac.

Duos of yogurt and eggplant dips anchor this section; the yogurt lifted either by shallots or cucumber and herbs. The eggplant dips, on the other hand, bring deep, flame-cooked flavor. The sauteed eggplant receives a crunchy fried-garlic and whey topping. The other is smoked, lapping up flames to turn dark and creamy, then mixed with garlic, tomato, and egg.

After apps, classic rice dishes include brilliant-yellow saffron rice, Basmati sweetened by barberries, and steamed rice with fava beans.

Of the few entrees, khoresh fesenjoon is the restaurant’s top seller so far. This refined chicken stew is served in a ceramic pot, tucked in a savory-sweet sauce of walnut and pomegranate molasses. The khoresh baghali — a Sardari family recipe — is another slow-cooked dish of braised beef in a fava-dill stew.

Persian cooking, Sardari says, requires some finesse — but even more so, patience. “You don’t dictate how many hours you cook it. The dish tells you when it’s ready,” he says. Sardari, who makes most of the entrees himself, lets the meats braise on their own time, slow and low. The fesenjoon simmers for at least three hours; the lamb upwards of five.

Iranian cuisine is having a moment across the area as of late, with Tysons Corner’s family-style newcomer Joon picking up early praise — and a 2024 James Beard semifinalist nod.

While Kookoo’s food isn’t spicy, it makes liberal use of herbs. “Saffron, turmeric, cumin, these are my central spices,” he says, noting that he manages to source his saffron right from Iran.

Alcohol is not widely consumed in today’s Iran, but beer and wine were very popular when Sardari was growing up. With his liquor license, he infuses Persian flavors into the drinks. One specialty cocktail is the Azadi, built with lavender syrup, vodka, and champagne. Azadi translates to “freedom” in Farsi, and the drink is dedicated to the women’s movement and wave of protests after Mahsa Amini died in police custody in 2022.

Cocktails at Kookoo.

In an attempt to slowly introduce the neighborhood to Persian food, Sardari is debuting a burger. The meat is ground through with onion and sumac; fall-apart grilled onions lay on top, and a tangy creamed feta slathers the bun. “I used to work at Johnny Rockets,” he says. “I know burgers.” He also serves wings, glazed in a sweet-spicy-sour pomegranate glaze.

Set on a busy thoroughfare next to DCUSA, Kookoo maintains a quiet intimacy (the name is intentionally “catchy and easy to remember,” he says). When Sardari sits down at a table to talk about the flavors, and how important they are to his family, he can wax poetic for as many hours as it takes his lamb to braise.

At the end of the day, he wants people to remember the food: “simple but sophisticated,” he says.

Nightly dinner runs 5 p.m. until 9 p.m. Monday to Thursday and Sunday and until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, plus brunch from Friday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.