Banu kabob and vodka bar is a delicious journey that begins from the moment you visit its website and continues when you enter the restaurant at their Queen St. West location in Toronto. Here you are transported to 1970s Iran, when the country was abuzz with culture, cosmopolitanism, the pop-art of Andy Warhol and vodka.
Samira Mohyeddin, a seasoned restaurateur, shares banu with her younger brother Amir — chef extraordinaire — and older sister Salome, who manages kad banu, their Iranian café just 10 minutes away. Before entering the restaurant business, Samira was a student of modern Middle Eastern history and Gender Studies at the University of Toronto, while Amir was in chef’s school at George Brown College.
“One day, in 2005, I was cycling past this space, when I saw that it was up for sale. This was my sign that it was time to fulfill my dream of presenting Iranian food and culture to Toronto in a way that had not been done before,” says Samira. The siblings opened banu as an homage, not just to the 70s Iranian culture and nightlife, but also to their beautiful mother, Zarrin. In Farsi, banu means lady or dame of culture, respect and distinction.
As one settles into the chic low-levelled, vinyl couches or the retro blue bar stools, banu’s resto-lounge atmosphere begins to kick in. Samira or one of the friendly staff will gently ease you into a king’s feast of kabobs and vodka. Guests at banu swear by the authenticity of the food and décor that makes them fondly remember the good old times when vodka was free flowing and served at truck stops in Iran, paired with naan zir kabob, a rustic lavash soaked in the juices of meaty, yet soft and succulent kabobs. When asked about the décor, Samira says, "we didn't want it to look like Ali Baba's cave in here, it's not the 6th century.”
The menu boasts a selection of 14 different vodkas, which are mixed with ingredients such as saffron, cherries and pomegranates to make cocktails like the safka. One can expect the usual koobideh, chenjeh and torsh kabobs, but what is delectably unusual is the moist, tender and perfectly flavoured texture of the meats. “Our price points are on the higher side because we use only organic meats and proper cuts for the beef tenderloin. Unlike others, we don’t use kiwi juice to tenderize tough cuts of beef and pass them off as tenderloin,” points out Samira.
The affable siblings are known for their outspokenness against stereotypes that are associated with their culture. “We do not serve halal meat because it is hypocrisy to eat halal meat with alcohol. We don’t believe in such hypocrisy,” says Amir. If you are in the mood for adventure, banu serves up a delicious order of lamb testicles masterfully marinated in vodka and shallots, and pickled cow’s heart that will make a believer out of you.
Over the years, banu has been critically acclaimed by the UK Guardian that featured an article written by Alex Kapranos, lead singer of Scottish rock band Franz Ferdinand, who happened to stop by the restaurant during one of the band’s tours. The New York Times, Toronto Life Magazine, CBC Radio and Now Magazine wrote other rave reviews.
banu represents an Iran that is not stuck inside a social vacuum. Its food is rich with flavour, culture, the velvety nostalgia of an era gone by, and is the culmination of decades of anguish and love. “It is important for people to understand that we serve Iranian food, not Persian food. There is no such thing as Persian food, it is a misnomer,” concludes Samira.