My friends and I were driving around Los Angeles the other weekend, in search of, what else, food. It's mucky hot in Phoenix these days, I hadn't seen these pals in a while, and any chance I get to explore eating outside my Valley borders, I need nothing more to get me out the door than an overnight bag and a notebook. Culinary research, I like to call these mini-vacations.
We'd spent the morning at the legendary Farmer's Market, browsing through stalls of fresh produce, meats, poultry, nuts and candies. It took willpower to resist stuffing ourselves at the charming collection of casual restaurants inside the market, but we'd already decided on lunch at the stunning Lucques on Melrose in West Hollywood. After a filling feast of corn soup and orecchiette with pancetta, we took a jaunt through Ripley's Believe it or Not Odditorium (my favorite gag? A taxidermic fraud of a trout covered in rabbit fur). Now, we were filling time before dinner at another incredible eatery: The House, a terrific little farm-fresh American bistro on Melrose.
I was grumbling that while I hate the traffic congestion in L.A., I do love its crazy cornucopia of shops, like Genghis Cohen restaurant on Fairfax not far from the Farmer's Market, with its head-scratching but tasty New York-style Szechwan menu. I love to stop in at World Pet Shop & Bonsai on Western Avenue, with its confusing but cute combination of miniature dogs (toy breeds like Chihuahuas and Maltese) alongside tiny manicured trees.
"Uzbekistan, A Unique Restaurant," I read aloud as we passed another sign on a storefront facing Sunset in Hollywood. "Yeah, that'd be one-of-a-kind, no doubt," I laughed, sure that it was yet another creatively crafted name.
My buddies gasped. Surely I knew about Uzbekistan, they implored. The northwest Asian country next door to Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan? The place was popular with L.A. diners, they insisted, serving a menu of traditional Russian cuisine. Right, I grinned. Those wacky California folks.
Turns out, nobody was kidding. Uzbekistan does exist, in L.A. as a restaurant, and in Asia as a country next to Russia and north of Iran. I discovered this fact as I trolled through information on the Caspian Sea, motivated to learn more about the region after a delightful lunch I'd just had at Caspian, a restaurant that opened early this year at 70th Street and Shea in Scottsdale. Who knew that Uzbekistan was a real place, not too far from the inland sea that is source of the world's best caviar? And who knew that Caspian owner Kaveh Kashani was quietly crafting such fine stuff in his cozy kitchen tucked between two of the Valley's best restaurants, Sushi on Shea and Maria's When in Naples? I know now, that's for sure.
Kashani is a familiar name for local diners, who know that he's formerly of the well-loved Shish Kebab House in the West Valley. Like SKH, Caspian serves Persian food, fragrant with herbs and heavy on beef, chicken, pita bread and rice. It's got addictive flavors, like borani, a mix of sautéed spinach and yogurt. A few of its specialties call for an adventurous attitude, like kashk-o bademjan (sautéed eggplant with whey, garlic and onion), or torshi liteh (carrots, eggplant, cauliflower and herbs aged in vinegar). Vegetarians can eat happily here, filling up on veggie kebabs gently charbroiled and paired with savory rice.
This isn't stuff for timid appetites -- even the more modest portioned lunch servings have me flat on my back later in the afternoon, fat and happy with a belly bulging with koobideh kebab, two thick ropes of generously seasoned ground beef broiled to meaty moistness and plopped over a big platter of fluffy basmati rice. On the side: warm pita bread, a broiled tomato, and a Greek salad littered with feta, kalamata olives, cucumber and pepperoncini with thin yogurt sauce. Other kebabs are hefty, too, layered with tenderized, marinated beef or chicken with chunks of green bell pepper, onions and tomatoes all charbroiled to a crispy blackened edge.
I've learned something else, thanks to Caspian: ghormeh sabzi makes for fine breakfast food. I heated up the hearty stew leftovers in the microwave, and found the flavors had grown even more intense since my dinner the evening before. Dried lime had become almost metallic in its strength, adding a pleasing jolt to the sautéed, simmered vegetables, chunks of stewed beef and pinto beans. Stews are what set Caspian apart from other Valley Persian cafes, bringing brilliant gheimeh bademjan (soft eggplant, beef, onions and yellow peas simmered in tomato sauce) or gheimeh (the same, minus the eggplant). Ladled over rice and scooped with pliant pita, they're exotic comfort dishes.
Caspian does a fine job with fancier fare, like Cornish game hen, marinated, skewered and charbroiled, and mahi mahi or shrimp kebabs. Lamb shish kebabs are expertly broiled, and the chef knows how to treat filet mignon with proper care. But what really gets me coming back is Caspian's breathtaking appetizers, an impressive list spanning 10 selections. This is possibly the best hummus I've ever had, the garbanzo bean dip thick and silky like mousse, sprinkled with paprika and slathered on warm pita. The same beans get paired with vegetables and deep-fried for crisp falafel, making an excellent snack alongside mast-o khiyar (homemade yogurt sparkling with mint and chopped cucumber). And I'm intrigued by olovieh, an almost crunchy spread of chopped chicken breast, pickles, potatoes, hard-boiled eggs and a hint of mayonnaise. Another compelling, if shockingly tart, combo I like is shoore (pickled cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery and garlic, paired with a plate of dolmeh (grape leaves stuffed with rice, chopped onion, sunflower oil and spices).
I called my L.A. friends to admit that they were right, Uzbekistan does exist. They took the opportunity to taunt me about the great weather they were enjoying -- 80 degrees compared to my Valley's scorching 109. I sure wasn't suffering though, I assured them, relaxed in my air-conditioned house, snacking on cartons of leftover shirazi salad (chopped cucumber, tomato and onion in olive oil and lemon), with a plate of deeply peppered gyros dipped in yogurt. It was hard to fret about the temperature while I still had fond memories of Caspian's Persian ice cream, or zoolbia, sort of a sugar-yogurt fritter soaked in syrup. And what were they doing, I wondered?
They were stuck in traffic, crawling across the asphalt in a sea of shimmering cars as they struggled to make their way home after a long day in the office. Those wacky California folks. They may have their Uzbekistan restaurant, but I've got my Caspian, and that's very special to me indeed.
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