At Caspian Mediterranean Grill
by M.B. Lewis
From the January, 2018 issue
You can learn a lot about food from various cultures in the Ann Arbor-Ypsi-Detroit continuum. For example, I think Caspian Mediterranean Grill is the first eatery I've ever visited anywhere that specializes in Persian food. On the restaurant's website, owner Shafyi Broumand explains that he wanted to share the food he remembered from his father's restaurant on the shore of the Caspian Sea.
Since opening last spring in a small strip mall opposite the Marriott Eagle Crest in Ypsilanti Township, Caspian Mediterranean Grill has developed a following. It wasn't just people of Iranian background who suggested that it was worth checking out. I found the attractive, nautical-blue single-room dining area relatively busy at mealtimes, with families, hungry construction workers, and other folks.
Being new to this cuisine, I asked the friendly counter person to point out their most popular traditional Persian dishes. She unhesitatingly referred me to two: zereshk polo and fesenjoon.
"Polo" is Caspian's transliteration of one of the region's common culinary denominators--the rice cooked with broth and veggies whose wanderings Wikipedia traces from the Sanskrit pulaka to the Greek pilafi. Here it's a skewer of nicely grilled big chunks of white meat chicken and onion atop a bed of basmati rice generously dotted with bright-red little barberries that had been caramelized for sweetness. A layer of bright-yellow saffron rice under the berries gave the dish a festive look completely appropriate to its wonderful flavor combination.
I was less enthusiastic about the fesenjoon, a chicken stew that combines ground walnuts with jammy pomegranate syrup in a thick brown sauce tasting like stewed raisins or dates. I'm told it has great nostalgic appeal among those who grew up with it, but its cloying tones kept this newcomer from wanting more than a few bites.
Service was a bit slow, so I got to watch some interesting and almost always generously proportioned entrees delivered to other customers. Most eye-catching was a heaping pile of rice with a Flintstones-caliber
bone sticking straight up from the top. It was boiled lamb shank (baghali polo), served with lima beans and dill. I was perfectly satisfied with our own third entree, a charbroiled filet mignon with Caspian's signature grilled tomato, its own big bed of basmati rice, and a yummy side of fresh and lemony English cucumber and tomato salad shirazi.
The basic fatoush and tabbouleh salads were fine and fresh, if not outstanding in any particular way. Caspian's smoky-flavored baba ghanoush, however, was fantastic, full-textured enough that you get a few eggplant seeds. For a whipped-smooth spread, also try Caspian's delicious and freshly lemony hummus or homemade yogurt with savory herbs.
For lunch, Caspian advertises $5.99 deals, either a hamburger or a chicken shawarma sandwich with fries. I tried the shawarma on another day, again generously apportioned with thin strips of grilled chicken and a pickle wrapped in pita. It went great with one of Caspian's $4.99 made-to-order juices of ginger, lime, and apple (the core, seeds and all, are pulverized in an industrial-grade juicer).
Caspian's huge menu included many vegetarian options, but perhaps ironically for a place named after two large bodies of water, no fish. The choices seemed evenly divided between intriguing unfamiliar foods and slight twists on relatively standard Middle Eastern fare that you'd find at restaurants with Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian, Israeli, and Turkish proprietors. Diverging geopolitical climates and history don't necessarily mean sustenance that's completely worlds apart.
Caspian Mediterranean Grill
1334 Anna J. Stepp Dr.,Ypsilanti
Sun.-Wed. 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Thurs.-Sat. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Appetizers $3.99-$7.99; sandwiches, salads, and soups $2.99-$6.99; entrees $8.99-$23.99; juices and desserts $4.99-$5.99.
[Originally published in January, 2018.]
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