Carol Godsmark reviews Festival in Southsea

Festival Cafe, Elm Grove, Southsea.   Picture: Allan Hutchings (13851-863)
Festival Cafe, Elm Grove, Southsea. Picture: Allan Hutchings (13851-863)
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Iranian food doesn’t spring immediately to mind when ticking off the countries with the richest food culture. But in this case, ignorance is the opposite of bliss.

Iranian food is a treasure trove of pomegranates, pistachios, walnuts, dates, olives and saffron. Food – and wine – played a central role in centuries-past Persian culture, which continues to this day.

Festival, a cafe on Elm Grove, opened its doors in 2011 and celebrates some Iranian dishes alongside the usual English casual food.

But there is no mistaking the Iranian stamp on the place, with the colours of the flag on the napkins. There are green tiles denoting Islam, white for peace and red for courage.

The interior has Wi-fi, and it’s simple but welcoming thanks to its very comfortable back lounge with sofas and a 50-inch screen. There are wood tables and chairs on a tiled floor and some extra-high counter seats. Photography of a London Routemaster bus and the Eiffel Tower give it a more global feel.

The cafe menu is equally global thanks to pasta, panini and pizza dishes alongside sandwiches, jacket potatoes, salads and all-day breakfasts. Cakes are also a speciality alongside Portuguese sweets.

Roast or Cajun chicken, prawns, tuna, tomato, and vegetables are found in the pasta dishes (from £3.80) with the same ingredients turning up in salads.

The Iranian dishes include rice with curry, rice with chicken meatballs, egg fried rice and soup of the day, all ranging from £2 to £5.30.

I chose the chicken meatballs, which were flavoured with onion and spices, and added later on with pomegranate juice and pomegranate molasses. At first, the dark brown sauce looked pretty unappetising. There was a separate plate of rice, seasoned with saffron, which was a vehicle for spooning over some of the sauce and meatballs. But it was a delicious dish full of character, with the sweetness of the pomegranates lifting the cloying of the walnuts and oil. The chicken balls were moist, moreish and huge.

I recently judged more than 20 cookery books and food articles for the Guild of Food Writers’ Awards. An Iranian cookbook, Pomegranates and Roses by Ariana Bundy, caught my eye.

The dish is in the book and is known as Khoresht Fesenjan. It’s a medieval stew, with the pomegranate adding acidity to balance the walnut’s fatty oils. At £5.50, it was a good, economical winter warmer to counteract the April snowflakes.

I finished my meal with the Portuguese soft chocolate sweets, the perfect counteract to the big-flavoured stew. Other desserts include ice creams, carrot, chocolate or walnut cake, muffins or caramel shortcake. The drinks list, all non-alcoholic, includes hot chocolate, carrot juice and special black tea.

Iranian hospitality is part of the legendary Middle Eastern way of life, and Festival is no exception.

The two spirited Iranians who run it are testimony to some of the country’s great strengths as well as its beauty, which captured me on my first trip to Tehran and Isfahan.

I never ate Khoresht Fesenjan then but I know now where to track it down, and it’s a first for Southsea and possibly farther afield. May Festival’s Iranian dishes expand in numbers as customers try them over usual English fare.

My bill came to just over £8, which is a bargain meal.

Festival Cafe, 173 Elm Grove, Southsea, PO5 1LR.

Tel: (023) 9281 9641.

Open 9am-6pm Mon to Wed and 9am-9pm Thurs to Sat. Closed Sun.

Disabled access: Steps up to the toilets.

How to get there: It’s on the corner of Elm Grove and Victoria Road North. There’s also on-street parking.

FOOD ****