In the United States, authentic Kurdish restaurants are exceptionally uncommon. Fortunately for local residents such an eatery has come to Agoura Hills. Open since Februrary 2013, Niroj Levant Cuisine is the vision that became reality for owner Luqman Barwari and his wife, Zuzan.
“ It has always been my dream to have a Kurdish restaurant,” Barwari said. “I strongly believe in my culture and my food. I know people will enjoy it and I want to share this with my community.”
A Kurd from Iraq, Barwari came to the United States when he was a senior in high school. He received a Bachelor of Science in microbiology as well as an MBA from North Dakota State University.
He worked in the specialized field of liver transplant at UCLA Medical Center before becoming an associate scientist at Amgen. In 2011, after 12½ years employed with the pharmaceutical company, he was one of the nearly 400 employees that lost their jobs.
“ I was among the many people laid off and by then I had settled in and fallen in love with the beautiful Conejo Valley,” Barwari explained. “The timing was right, I didn’t want to pursue my career in research and relocate. I wanted to open the first Kurdish restaurant in western United States.”
Zuzan Barwari, a linguist for the Department of Defense, fully supported her husband’s endeavor and agreed that if they were going to embark on this journey they needed to invest their resources and carefully plan the menu and décor to reflect the very best of their Kurdish heritage.
The couple travelled to the Levant region located where Mesopotamian, Anatolian, Hellenistic and Mediterranean civilizations intersect. Profoundly cosmopolitan, the Levant is rich in tradition with its own distinct cuisine.
They spent weeks researching recipes, buying spices, selecting furniture, artifacts and accessories to insure that they would bring authenticity in both cuisine and décor to their Agoura Hills restaurant.
Inside the fully renovated space is an area that Barwari referred to as a traditional Kurdish room. Filled with natural light, the walls are painted warm terra cotta and provide an ideal backdrop to the colorful Anatolian Turkish rugs and pillows that cover the relaxed low bench and ottoman seating. Tables are topped with antique etched copper and brass trays, each unique and beautiful. The vibrant paintings by Kurd artist, Sardar, adorn the walls.
The Kurdish room is separated from the dining room by a small bar where French champagne racks displayed on the walls hold wines from California, Italy, Chile, Israel and France. American, European and Mexican beers as well as tea made in a samavor and Kurdish coffee similar to espresso are also served at the bar.
Like the menu and décor, the staff at Niroj Levant was hand selected. Knowledge of Kurdish culture and cuisine was essential as well as industry experience.
“I am very blessed to have such good people working for me,” Barwari said. “Anal, our general manager has opened restaurants in Boston and San Diego. He understands the business and is very hospitable.”
Chef Mesut came to the United States from Turkey where he began cooking in his family home at the age of 10. He prepares a variety of Middle Eastern delicacies such as kebab, falafel and hummus using Kurdish preparation techniques and spices which give familiar dishes an unexpected, exceptional flavor.
The most popular item on the menu is the Levant Kebab prepared with grilled seasoned ground lamb and beef rolled in lavash bread, topped with fresh tomato sauce and melted butter, served with garlic yogurt.
First time customers favor the Tawe stew. Prepared in a clay pan, chunks of lamb are topped with baked eggplant and a special house made sauce that consists of green peppers, red peppers and Kurdish spices. The dish is baked and served over rice.
Family-style feasts offer the opportunity to sample appetizer as well as entrée items.
“Everything is made here fresh,” Barwari said. “We have a good selection of lamb and beef stews made to order. Our food is very flavorful but not spicy as say Indian or Mexican food. The spices are barely noticeable. They mellow as they are baked so each dish is very balanced.”
When asked if he enjoys being a restaurateur Barwari thoughtfully responded, “I love being a restaurateur, not for the sake of being a restaurateur. I am not in it to sell kebobs to the community I am in it to give a taste of the culture to the community. Everyone is welcome here.”
Niroj Kurdish Cuisine is in the Reyes Adobe Plaza at 30313 Canwood St., Agoura Hills. For more information., call (818) 889-7888.