We spot it, my friend Ann Bronson and I: the Caspian Bistro, which since 1986 has occupied a space in a dark brick building on the south side of University Avenue SE near the intersection with Washington Avenue SE, next to the Little Dearborn antique Ford auto parts store.
There are three tall arched windows just behind a stone balustrade giving a great, old-world look. The tree-shaded light cools the late afternoon sun, preparing us for the Persian spiciness to come.
The long aisle of the deli is a greeting of fresh fruits, exotic teas, delicate cookies and homemade breads on a simple wooden rack. Tucked between the breads and the teas is the entrance to the restaurant. The maître d’ seats us and we soon learn what a family-friendly restaurant it is.
We are approached by the waitress and her daughter, a most charming blonde girl of 7 or 8, who helps us with our beverage order. The framed Persian carpet portraits, photographically perfect and rich in detail, hand-woven by an Iranian artist, are wonderful to see. They take us to the life of the desert and Persian cuisine as we pick and choose over a menu of mysterious names and tempting dishes; then settle in to a charming and comfortable meal overlooking University Avenue at its best, through the arched windows and across the stone balcony—like the view from a grand hotel.
Carolyn: Let’s tell our readers about the food. After all, that’s what it’s all about.
Ann: I couldn’t pronounce most of the Persian names of the dishes, but you can order by number and the description of the dishes is in English.
Carolyn: The selection of appetizers had some familiar dishes. We settled on the vegetarian sampler: hummus, dolmas (rice stuffing rolled in a grape leaf), falafel and delicious, tiny spinach pies.
Ann: I thought the dolmas were especially good with the homemade satziki sauce.
Carolyn: Cutting into the falafel was a treat. The outside was a crispy brown; the inside was pistachio green. They had an excellent hand with the spices—bright but not too spicy.
Ann: The gyros sandwich is my favorite Middle Eastern sandwich. The Caspian’s combination of spiced beef and lamb comes wrapped in warm, lavash-style bread—a thin, delicate, grilled Persian flat bread—not at all like a pita, and far more tempting. Try it the way I like it, with lots of satziki sauce, tomatoes and onions.
Carolyn: There was such a selection of kababs—chicken, lamb and beef prepared several ways—that I just had to try one. I finally settled on the Caspian Chicken Kabab. Very tasty chicken served with perfect basmati saffron rice and a grilled tomato. The dinner salad could have used some of the satziki sauce to advantage; I thought the dressing was a little bland. Saffron must be the Shaherzade of spices, it was used in almost every dish. I noticed it was even in the homemade ice cream.
Ann: Yes, and the sugar cubes were either the plain ones we usually see or wedge shape, yellow with saffron, to serve with tea. The weather was too hot for tea, though, so I ordered sour cherry juice which turned out to be just right—not too sweet.
Carolyn: I tried the mango juice, but I really liked your cherry juice better. They have a nice selection of traditional beverages. Next time I might try the yogurt soda, Doogh Abali. We can’t forget dessert, and right up there next to chocolate is baklava. There were three kinds to choose from. We had the Greek style, with chocolate sauce. Very rich and sweet. The Bastani ice cream was tempting as well, made with rosewater, pistachio and saffron.
Ann: Next time it’s going to be Zoolbia and Bamieh, those incredibly sweet and sticky looking little nuggets in the deli case for my dessert.
After dinner, we checked out the deli where you can get both packaged groceries and deli-fresh foods. Figs and dates were deliciously heaped-up near pools of hummus and tahini, cooly waiting for a customer needing a small sweet treat. Olives? At least a half dozen kinds. How about nuts? Big bags in barrels full—you scoop. A cheese, perhaps? Get something like a feta to brighten up a salad at home. If you wish to delve into the riches of Persian cooking you will find several cookbooks by Najmieh Batmanglij.
Deeper toward the back are shelves of special treats, both familiar and new to me: Persian pickled vegetables, jams of rose leaves, guava and mango; sour cherry and pomegranite juice, and flavored syrups for your home soda fountain. (Certainly the perfect surprise addition to the next barbeque or scrabble game.) So take the advice of two MOPs (mavens on the prowl) and go to the Caspian. You’ll like it.