This café features traditional Persian zoolbia with a twist
BB Café is located at 6095 Yonge St.
I've long been vocal about my love for the neighbourhood of "Tehranto," which starts north of Yonge Street and Finch Avenue. Over the years, the sprawling Persian community has established businesses stretching north of Steeles Avenue all the way to Major Mackenzie Drive.
In previous columns, I've talked about wonderful rice dishes that you can find at the 24-hour Arzon Supermarket and some excellent kabobs at Pars Grill. I frequent this area as much as possible (it's also one of my most popular food tours) as its constant state of flux always presents something new.
With each trip I will either discover a new café or takeout spot, or see a new category of imported goods that have made their way to store shelves from Western Asia.
I stumbled upon BB Café completely by chance about five years ago. The family-run operation is tucked into the Iranian plaza that kick-started the neighbourhood two decades ago. Nestled between Arzon Supermarket and a cluster of money exchange franchises, I was overwhelmed by a the smell of baking spices and nuts when I neared the café.
I was told by a friend that the shop was known for their tea service and cookies. The first thing you notice about the place — besides the wonderful smells of pistachio, saffron and rose water — is the vast selection of baked goods.
An entire section is dedicated to cookies, dressed with walnuts, pistachios and sesame seeds. Then there's a lavish cake display with ornately-designed desserts.
I enjoyed the traditional Persian tea service complemented by a plate of almond and pistachio cookies. You could say I was hooked: not only by the chaikhana (teahouse) culture that BB Café was presenting, but also by the handmade pastries which aren't that easy to find in Toronto.
There was something else special about the café, too. Over the years, I've noticed that every customer who walks through the doors will spend a few minutes talking to an older lady behind the counter.
I soon learned she is the family's grandmother, and she's at the café every day to greet customers.
"My mother always insists on coming to the café," Fahimeh Nejad said.
Nejad opened BB Café nearly a decade ago with her husband, Saeed. The pair immigrated to Canada from Tehran, Iran's capital, in the 1990s with their two young daughters, Sara and Parisa.
My introduction to the family was through Parisa, who manages the food side of the business.
"My mom is a renowned baker, especially from back home," Parisa said. "I've always wanted to a baker too, so we work side by side."
Sara and her father run the business side of operations. Around the time I discovered BB Café, Saeed and Fahimeh started thinking about the future of the business with their daughters in mind.
"Parisa and I were approached by our parents. They wanted to know what we wanted to do with the business," Sara said. "I was in construction at the time. Both Parisa and I knew we wanted to expand and maintain the family business, so we jumped in."
What stands out for me in this three-generation business is how they approach food and the idea of preserving something traditional while experimenting with new flavours.
If you look closely at the pastries, cookies and cakes, you'll learn that while many of the items on the menu are traditional, there are subtle tweaks and changes that set the sweets apart from their counterparts elsewhere.
Take the zoolbia, for example. It's a traditional Iranian dessert made from frying a batter of sour cream, yogurt and saffron. Whorls of dough are dropped into hot oil, pulled out a minute later, then dropped into rose-water syrup.
For me, its reminiscent of the saccharine jalebi that I grew up eating in Sri Lanka and India, but the Persian version is a lot more restrained. It's not as sweet, and has a thin, crunchy shell that oozes rose water essence when you bite into it.
The zoolbia is fantastic at BB Café, but what's even better is their second, non-traditional version: zoolbia made with black sesame seeds in the batter. The little flecks may not seem like much, but they impart a slightly nutty and earthy quality to the sweet.
One small ingredient can change everything. Once you have it, you can't go back.
The café's most popular cake is the pistachio pineapple cake. Pistachio is emblematic of Persian culture, and Fahimeh and Parisa have perfected a layered sponge cake that is thickly slathered with rich pistachio cream.
The exterior of the cake is unassuming with its pastel green colour, but dig into it and you'll notice thin slices of pineapple that have been folded into the batter. It's not a traditional ingredient, but when complementing the creamy, nutty pistachio, the pineapple adds pops of tropical zing and vibrancy.
The marriage of old and new works perfectly.
"Our goal is to try and keep as many Persian things the way they are, but also create something new," Sara said.
"It symbolizes our family's journey to Canada."