Persian cuisine -- notable for its roasted meats; stews flavored with exotic spices; sensual peaches, pistachios and saffron -- got around because Persia (modern-day Iran) was at the center of the legendary Silk Road linking the Orient to the Mediterranean. On these shores, the region's culinary traditions may have ended up in the catch-all Middle Eastern category (think hummus, pita bread, gyros), but a couple of visits to the four-month-old Caspian Bistro is a tasty lesson in history, geography and linguistics.
Linguistics? Well, if I hadn't stuck my fork into a bowl of the slightly bitter beef-and-bean stew known as ghormeh sabzi (potently flavored with sautéed cilantro, green onion and parsley, which also colors the concoction a rich, dark green), I never would have done a little homework on it. That's how I discovered that ghormeh, the Farsi word for stew, spawned the more modern term gourmet. That trivia note came from my copy of The Unofficial Guide to Ethnic Cuisine & Dining in America, which suggests that "unsophisticated French Crusaders" adapted ghormeh to describe "the lavish consumption of their Muslim enemies in the Holy Land."
I don't know if I'd call the Caspian Bistro a gourmet venue, but it's definitely a ghormeh heaven, and I dined lavishly there a couple of times. My friend Bob, who isn't a fan of Middle Eastern dining in any of its incarnations, loves the place because the menu is heavy on grilled meat and the interior has serious delusions of grandeur: oil paintings in gilt frames, shiny black chairs, theatrical light fixtures.
This is no suburban gyro joint, though the Caspian Bistro does serve Greek-inspired gyros at lunch (and, in a nod to Middle Western fare, fried chicken fingers). Things get a little fancier during the dinner hour, with an expanded kebab selection, dimmer lights and music that's downright operatic.
"They're playing Christmas music," Bob whispered as he tried to slather a tissue-thin square of soft lavosh with butter. (Pita comes only by request.)
I listened more closely. The male tenor on the sound system was singing "O Holy Night." An interesting choice for an Iranian restaurant and a sweltering summer evening, but our server assured us that the Caspian Bistro plays a wide array of music, and occasionally something unusual pops up. If the Christmas tune couldn't cool us down, the shirazi salad -- a bowl of cold chopped cucumber, onion and tomatoes -- certainly did. "It's the perfect summer salad," Bob said (and it was served with a chilled salad fork, too).
The Caspian Bistro's menu is an interesting cross-cultural culinary experience. Appetizers include the predictable hummus and stuffed grape leaves, but deep-fried mozzarella sticks with marinara sauce provide an option for those who need something more familiar than kashk badenjan, the warm, soothing dip made from roasted eggplant, onion, garlic, dried mint and a dollop of thick whey. It's very good and robustly flavored, but it's more easily eaten with pita than with lavosh.
Diners can order one of the dozen or so kebab dinners with saffron-sprinkled rice or a good ol' baked potato dripping with butter and sour cream ... or french fries! I wanted both the rice and a spud on the night I indulged myself on a joojeh soltani, a combo kebab platter of ground beef and charbroiled Cornish hen -- which I appreciated all the more because it's hard to find a tasty hen on local menus. Bob had the barg kebab, and we both thought the filet mignon, grilled with green pepper and onion, was wonderful. So was the potato, baked hot and fluffy and better than the comparable offerings at a lot of local steak joints. Alas, the rice was visually attractive but drier than the Great Salt Desert. It made me long for fries.
Shamelessly ignoring the four traditional Persian desserts, Bob decided on cheesecake because he wanted to order something he could pronounce. The cheesecake was standard-issue, nice and creamy, but more Sara Lee than Zarayeh (one of the many Persian names for the Caspian Sea).
A few nights later, I sailed into the place again, this time with Patrick and Bryan. They wanted a little booze with their kebabs, but the Caspian serves only wine and beer. They waved off the wine list after a brief examination and settled on iced tea. We all tasted the lamb-chop kebab and the shish kebab (filet mignon again), each marinated in a "special sauce." Those two words usually send up red flags for me -- I don't care how special it is, just tell me what's in it. For the record, the Caspian's marinade is pretty simple: salt, pepper, olive oil, onion and saffron.
All of the dinners are beautifully presented, the food artfully arranged on plates of unbreakable Melmac (or some equally indestructible material). Bryan was impressed with the arrangement of items on his seafood kebab, noting that it boasted three shrimp, two scallops and two big pieces of flaky, pale fish. We asked the server what kind it was, but he didn't know; we watched him conduct a long conversation with the manager, then they went into the kitchen before returning -- both of them -- with an answer: salmon. It didn't look or taste like salmon, but it was very good, thanks in part to that special sauce.
That second night, we made note of a different kind of sauce, made with honey, drenching the deep-fried pastries on the dessert list. We all took tastes of the squiggly zoolbia, but Bryan greedily snagged the two bamieh pastries, popping the doughy little balls into his mouth in an imitation of a famous gesture by Alexander the Great. Or so he said.
The rose-water ice cream was pretty but tasted vaguely like hand lotion. A rice pudding, flavored with cinnamon and sprinkled with crushed pistachios, was neon-orange and thick as paste, but Bryan liked its spicy kick.
For an even richer Persian experience, we could easily have walked across the shopping-center parking lot and pored through the shelves at Half Price Books for poetry by Rumi or Omar Khayyam, but restaurateur Hassan Hadjian's food had been lyrical enough to satisfy our hungry souls.