When you stop for ice cream at the new Mega Sweet Moments shop in Culver City, the selection of flavors may stand out as intriguingly exotic. But for those from Iran, the Persian ice creams, desserts, and teas, along with the ornately detailed decor, often evoke familiar memories.
“When Persian customers stop by, they say, ‘Oh, this is like we’re on a trip going towards Northern Iran,’” said owner Sam Holm, who credits his wife Sofia for the look and feel of Mega Sweet Moments.
It’s been 20 years since Sam and Sofia lived in Iran, but the two were inspired by their collective memories. The outside corner of the shop is wrapped in a mural landscape that depicts an afternoon in the countryside. The paintings continue on the inside, positioning the seating area as if you were on the banks of a lazy river, overlooking a field of fruitful pomegranate trees. The benches welcome guests to settle in on cushions of fluffy Persian rugs, and above the ice cream counter is a poem handpainted in Farsi script.
“In the area north of Tehran, there are rivers and mountains. The majority of the restaurants over there have this style,” Sam described.
Those lush rivers and mountains are responsible for growing many of the aromatic ingredients that you can taste at Mega Sweet Moments. Sam recommends Iran’s most cherished flavor combination, a scoop of saffron pistachio ice cream accompanied by a scoop of faloodeh, a type of rosewater sorbet with thin rice noodles.
“In the old days in Iran there was faloodeh and saffron and pistachio. And that was it,” Sam remembers.
Since it was introduced to Los Angeles more than 40 years ago, the repertoire of Persian ice cream flavors has expanded. Mega Sweet Moments offers several of the ones that are decidedly distinctive, such as orange blossom, ginger, cucumber, and date, along with a pomegranate sorbet.
“Ours is more on the sour side of the pomegranate flavor. But at the same time, has its own exotic flavor,” said Sam.
Besides the taste, also noteworthy is the texture. A flour called salep, made from the tubers of orchids, is added to thicken and soften the ice cream with a pliable consistency that allows it to stretch when you pull your spoon away from the bowl.
To complement your cold, creamy dessert, you can also enjoy a fragrant cup of Persian hot tea. Sofia creates her own blend from leaves grown in the humid regions of Iran near the Caspian Sea. The tea is brewed in a towering golden samovar. The stainless steel kettle and teapot system produces a concentrated concoction, which is diluted with water for each serving.
The tea is traditionally served in a clear glass so you can marvel at the amber-rubyish liquid. Despite the dark color, it’s mild in caffeine and floral in flavor with the brightness of ripe lemons. For an additional charge, you can add liquid saffron to your tea. Sam makes his own saffron concentrate from several pinches of the world’s most expensive spice.
Saffron rice pudding is also available, as well as saffron rock candy. Two pastry cases hold even more Middle Eastern pastries and sweets, such as Persian donuts (zoolbia and bamieh), and what Sam considers to be an Americanized version of baklava.
“Normally baklava is very sweet and has a lot of honey and syrup on it. We made it less sweet,” he said.
If the name “Mega” sounds familiar, it’s because this is the second Culver City project for Sam and Sofia. You’ll find their other restaurant, Mega Pizza & Grille, just around the corner, serving halal Middle Eastern dishes, traditional pizzas, plus a few inspirations of their own. These include canoe-shaped pizzas, pizza sandwiches, and Copenhagen-style pizzas influenced by their years in Denmark, where they once owned two similar restaurants and where Sam had studied culinary arts.
While Persian ice cream and pastries are on the dessert menu at Mega Pizza & Grille, the opening of Mega Sweet Moments has allowed the Holms to expand their offerings of traditional Persian desserts, tea, and coffee in a relaxed cafe setting.
“Middle Eastern people can come here and feel at home and feel comfortable. And non-Middle Eastern and Americans and other nationalities can come and here and try something different and unique,” said Sam.