Because it offers cuisine from Spain to Morocco, from Greece to Lebanon and more, Caspian Café is like a cruise ship in the Mediterranean Sea docking at different ports, but the dining experience is anything but whirlwind.
Nothing about the building's exterior near Interstate 25 and Garden of the Gods Road - or its interior décor - suggest that diners will be transported to faraway lands. Yet thanks to the chef, that's what happens. This is not a mere hummus and kebab eatery, though. It is fine dining designed to expand one's culinary horizons without ever leaving the city.
We enjoyed shrimp with pesto ($9.95) as a starter. The small but succulent crustaceans were covered not with a traditional basil pesto, but rather with a blend of mint and cilantro, olive oil and lots of garlic.
A relish of fresh tomatoes, olives and diced cucumbers added color next to the small triangles of warm pita. We could have used more pita to sop up the herb mix. Fortunately, a basket of warm ciabatta bread was brought to the table. Even though we were given small plates of olive oil mixed with balsamic vinegar, we used the bread on the remaining pesto until we wiped that dish clean.
Our server was helpful in offering tips and explaining some of the dishes. She said the Moroccan roast chicken ($19.95) is one of her favorites, thanks to all of the spices and citrus. Indeed, slices of cooked lemon and oranges added not only an aromatic element, but a visual one.
The baked chicken was juicy with a spice- and herb-infused savory sauce that had turmeric, paprika and cinnamon, among many others. It didn't quite melt in my mouth, but it came close. It was served with roasted vegetables and basmati rice.
The Caspian kebabs ($18.95) is a true combination plate composed of lamb and chicken, warm pita, grilled sliced tomatoes and yogurt sauce. The latter had lemon but no trace of cucumber. It was a disappointing variation if only because it looks so much like the Greek condiment I was expecting.
Several of the dishes originated at the Caspian Café, including the stuffed pork chop ($19.95). The thick, boneless, center-cut chop is filled with olives, tomatoes, red onions, roasted garlic and feta cheese. It's an impressive portion served over house-made garlic mashed potatoes. The cherry demi-glace over the pork was overshadowed by all of the stuffing ingredients.
A few daily specials include Mediterranean herb- and sundried tomato-crusted prime rib, which is available on weekends. That's also the time to catch the belly dancer, who moves through the restaurant with grace and exotic motions. Many diners tried to ignore her until she appeared with sabers balanced on her head. At that point, she commanded everyone's attention.
One special we sampled was a large plate of bow-tie pasta ($23.95) coated with olive oil, garlic, artichokes, tomatoes, herbs and topped with a substantial number of tender, succulent shrimp. This was rich and the type of dish that evokes images of a coastal Italian village.
No visit to a restaurant highlighting Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine is complete without the requisite baklava ($5.95). This stack of paper thin pieces of filo brushed with honey and cinnamon, filled with chopped almonds and walnuts, was a little too sweet for my taste. Nonetheless, nothing remained on the plate.