When Azerbaijan Grill, a restaurant serving Turkish and Persian fare in Westbury, first opened in 2005, many people in the area knew little about this style of Mediterranean cuisine.
Chef Sammy, who owns the eatery and asked that his last name not be used, just started cooking and slowly built a customer base, he recalls. As it turns out, his eclectic menu has staying power.
“Mediterranean food has a language all its own, and that should be apparent to the diner,” he says.“I’ve always made a point of bringing a unique style to the food I cook.”
After coming to the U.S. in 1999 from Azerbaijan, a country located north of Iran and south of Russia, where people speak a variation of the Persian, Sammy recalls working at a variety of part-time jobs in the restaurant business, including waiting tables and later as a line cook.
“I worked at a Persian/Afghani restaurant in Flushing and also at a now-closed restaurant in Roslyn Heights, where I prepared various dishes and really started to learn the craft of cooking,” he recalls.
But, it wasn’t until after he finished-up a stint working at Aladdin in Syosset in 2005 that Sammy knew he was ready to strike out on his own by making a “modest” investment and taking over the then-foundering Turkan Café in Westbury.
“Much of my education about the restaurant business was not so much cooking but observing and studying other restaurants’ operations to see what works and what doesn’t,” he says. “I try as much as possible to apply positive approaches to my own place.”
Part of that unique style includes cooking-up traditional Persian and Turkish favorites such as boneless chicken kebab, marinated with lemon and grilled on an open fire or jujeh kebab, cornish hen marinated with lemon and zaffran.
Other favorites include lamb shish kebab, vegetable mousakka (vegan style), baba ghanouj, smooth roasted eggplant spread, whole branzino, a Mediterranean fish in lemon-garlic sauce as well as flaky, light spinach pie
Asked about his experience in the kitchen, Sammy revealed that back in his native Azerbaijan, he never cooked, but that he was always an enthusiastic and adventurous diner who enjoyed sampling new cuisines.
“The concept of a good restaurant is supposed to be the cooking and not just taking food, heating it and serving it to people,” he says, noting that he “dislikes frozen food that isn’t prepared from scratch.”
He adds that he personally oversees the from-scratch preparation of everything Azerbaijan serves from the grilled fish and kebabs to the hummus, eggplants and traditional desserts such as baklava and Persian ice cream.
Although Sammy enjoys a variety of different cuisines, he says that still enjoys Mediterranean cuisine best as it can “be eaten seven days per week and you will never tire of it.”
Looking forward, Sammy says he has his sights set on expansion.
“At some point soon, I would like to expand and open another restaurant here on Long Island,” he says. “Ideally, I would like to do an open-air, backyard style, Mediterranean restaurant along the lines of Greek cafes, such as Oasis in Flushing. But, not just yet. That is a project that is still on the horizon.”
Azerbaijan Grill is located at 1610 Old Country Road, Westbury. It can be reached at 516-228-0001 or azerbaijangrill.com