Persian immersion

Following a reader recommendation into the heart of the Middle East.

PEOPLE'S FAVORITE restaurants are as personal as their fingerprints, and often as unique. I know this because I get lots of mail from readers recommending this or that restaurant. The tone of their suggestions is frequently passionate, and the places are sometimes just great but sometimes (not to sound derisive) pretty ordinary. Caspian Grill

5517 University Wy NE, 524-3434 Tue-Thu noon-9pm, Fri noon-10pm, Sat 1-10pm, Sun 1-8pm DC, MC, V; full bar One explanation, of course, is that these are the restaurants whose owners have loyal letter-writing moms and brothers-in-law. The innocent earnestness of some of the recommendations, however, suggests the actual adoration of a true devotee. I have to admit this always touches me in a romantic, someplace-for-everyone kind of way, even as it reminds me how deeply irrelevant the critical endeavor can be when measured against the inclinations of the individual hungry heart. Which brings me to the Caspian Grill, a Persian restaurant in the U District. For six years, the place has been purveying ghaimeh budemjan and musto-khiar and their ilk to folks such as the reader who e-mailed me a couple of weeks ago calling Caspian's the best Persian food in town. She was so enthusiastic I hustled down a couple of nights later. Upon entering, I noted that the place, huge and about half full on a Saturday night, was well-represented by ethnic Middle Easterners—a good sign. Over came the waiter bearing a basket of house-made pita bread, which turned out to be undistinguished and well on its way to stiffness—not a good sign. The waiter, on the other hand, was a sweet, quiet-voiced gentleman who provided gracious service and gentle direction all evening. Unexpectedly, he came bearing two green salads—apparently, they come with all meals—which were basic, nondescript tosses of greens, cabbage, and carrots in a light lemon and vinegar dressing. "Very healthy," he murmured as he placed the plates before us. A lot of the food we sampled at Caspian Grill had the lean, underadorned quality that bespeaks healthful eating. An appetizer plate of hummus ($4), for instance, was dominated by its lemon juice, though the garlic, tahini, garbanzos, and olive oil were certainly in evidence. The effect was light and, to my palate, much too citrusy. On the other hand, the babaganoush ($5)—a paste of garlic, tahini, and eggplant—was substantial and smooth, smoky, and very nice. (I kept wanting pita bread worthy of it.) The soup of the day, lentil ($4), was mild, moderately thick, pocked with vegetables, and dull. With it, we ordered a serving of olovieh salad ($5), a sort of potato salad with chicken. In the way of herbs or seasonings, there was nothing identifiably Persian about it; it seemed, rather, like the blue-ribbon winner at small town America's county fair. This, you'll note, is not a criticism, just a curiosity. TO PUSH US INTO A MORE Iranian mood, we gamely ordered a glass of doogh ($2.50), a thick concoction of yogurt and dill that combined sweet and salty to unusual effect. An acquired taste, we concluded. Next we ordered a bowl of fesenjan ($11), chicken thighs in a rouge stew of pomegranate and ground walnuts. With it came a mammoth heap of fragrant basmati rice, crowned with a golden halo of saffron rice. The sauce was rich and exotically sweet; another acquired taste that was, nevertheless, not the weirdest part of the dish. That would be the chicken, which had been stewed to a strange, almost mealy texture that seemed to excise all moisture from the bird. Intriguing sauce notwithstanding, I wouldn't order this again. I would, however, come back for the chicken barg kabob ($13): a marinated chicken breast strip that, though marginally overcooked, was minimally seasoned and terrific with the extraordinary rice. Ditto the lamb kabob ($15), which was pink-tender and redolent of onion. Another dish, my favorite, was a plate of lentil-raisin rice ($7), to which I added an order of lamb shank for an extra $6—a parenthetical addition on a menu that ought to feature the combination with prominence. Fall-off-the-bone lamb, perfectly cooked, was delicious with another groaning plate of rice; this alluringly blended with lentils and sweet, plump raisins. Now this is Persian food. Better yet, order one of Caspian's platters with four or five dishes in combination. Platter 1 ($17) was a little like a gyro on a plate, featuring a couple of ground beef-onion kabobs and the aforementioned musto-khiar, a refreshing cucumber-yogurt-mint sauce. With them came kashke-bademjan, a puree of fried eggplant and garlic drizzled with whey, and ghormeh sabzi, a stew of beef and red beans combined (bitterly) with chopped herbs and spices. Platters are your best bet here, with more variety to dial up the intrigue and, alas, increase your chances of liking what you order. For if you haven't guessed by now, I'll say it straight out: Although the Caspian Grill has much to recommend it, I can't agree with the informant who pronounced it the best in town. To my mind, too much here was mediocre or off for such a superlative. Yet not a few Middle Easterners appear to make the Caspian Grill a home away from home, with at least one devotee who clearly loves the place heart and soul. A subjective business, this. Which is to say: Keep those cards and letters coming.

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