The last dinner service at Plum & Main Restaurant in Johnson was packed. At 8 p.m. on Saturday, May 8, the wait for a two-top was still more than half an hour.
With business like that, why did the diner — situated in Johnson’s original 1917 post office building — shut down the next day after more than 20 years as a town fixture? According to Laurel Persico, who co-owned the restaurant with her husband, Pat, “It’s just time for the next phase in our lives.”
Locals and Johnson State College students seemed glum at the prospect of their last helpings of hot open-faced sandwiches, salads with maple-French dressing and homemade pies. Fish and scallop specials were sold out before the end of the night. One of Plum & Main’s signatures, coconut cream pie, was gone, too. After serving up their final piece of Gooey Chocolate Chip, a soufflé-like take on the Tollhouse pie, the Persicos expressed the hope that someone would buy their restaurant. “People really love this place,” says Laurel.
For more adventurous Johnson diners, a new eatery may help fill the hole left on Main Street. Two weeks ago, Farah’s Middle Eastern Foods had its official grand opening just across the way from Plum & Main. The owner, Farah Oberlender, hails from Iran. Her cuisine reflects native specialties but also includes French pastries and Italian pasta dishes that have become popular in the Middle East. “Her lasagna is out of this world,” says Oberlender’s landlord, Jack Slagle.
She may have mastered Italian comfort food, but the restaurant’s raison d’être is producing Persian classics. Oberlender points out that her business — currently takeout only — is the first to serve her native cuisine in Vermont.
Two years ago, Oberlender started a business called JFK Creations with her husband, Jeffrey, and young son, Kevin. Since then, the family has sold Middle Eastern delicacies at farmers markets in Morrisville, Jericho, Johnson, Hardwick and Highgate. This summer, they will expand into Waterbury.
Oberlender says running a restaurant will be extra work, but her new convection oven should cut down on the stress. In previous summers, she had to cook 12 dishes simultaneously in her home’s electric version.
What exactly are those dishes? Besides the obvious choices, such as falafel, “samosehs” and stuffed grape leaves, Oberlender offers as many as 40 uniquely Persian items each day. She recommends quiche-like koko — plates of spiced eggs pan-fried with meats or vegetables. Tah cheen, a layered rice and chicken casserole with yogurt and saffron, incorporates basmati rice, as do many of the dishes at Farah’s. Oberlender says she’s excited about adding kebabs to the menu in the near future — specifically kubideh, sausage-like skewers of spiced ground lamb or beef.
Though Persian food is certainly out of the ordinary in tiny Johnson, Oberlender thinks it’s the perfect place for her business — which, she says, has already been hit up by diners who compared it favorably with meals they ate in Iran. (The cosmopolitan crowd at the Vermont Studio Center might have something to do with that.) “It’s far to Burlington and everywhere, but I just love this place,” Oberlender says.