Photo by Jessica CalkinsThe two marble sphinxes guarding the entrance of Caspian Restaurant are probably the least opulent features of this Persian prandial palace. Consider the Pieta-esque sculpture in the center of the ornate lobby—a lobby with a floor-tile pattern so extravagant the interior-design journal In the Moodrewarded it with a five-page spread. Or the Greek columns that jut from random points in the 400-seat building, stretching toward sky-blue ceilings painted with wispy clouds. Even the fragrant caramelized tea customarily sipped after a Persian meal comes in a crystal mug. Rumor has it Reza Pahlavi, son of Iran's last Shah, feasts at Caspian when he visits Orange County. Royalty gravitates toward royalty, y'know?
Royal is what Caspian has offered its customers for more than 20 years. It opened in 1982 in a 90-person capacity building, relocating to its present citadel in 1995 to accommodate a Persian populace that's turning—of all places!—Irvine's Heritage Square Mall into Little Tehran. Caspian's arrival spurred the opening of a Persian supermarket, a record store, a rug seller, a dentist and a pastry shop—each with signs adorned in the baroque Farsi script.
These businesses occupy single-story edifices; Caspian towers above them, a two-story testament to Iran's gustatory greatness. So of course there's going to be charred-just-right kebabs of various cuts and meats accompanied by any of the polos (rice pilafs) that justify the Persian diet's royal reputation. The shirin polo in particular—rice studded with baked orange peels, pistachios and almonds—would persuade Bush to remove Iran from his Axis.
But ignore those platters; though superb, they're found at most Persian restaurants, and Caspian takes particular care with its culture's obscure offerings. Try rarities such as the Caspian platter. Glance around, and you'll notice most of the Persian customers are stabbing into the platter's four veggie appetizers with a knife and spreading it on the naan-like bread (tanori). Two of the items on the platter, must o' kheyar and must o' mousier, are chilled yogurts, the former possessing powerful shallots that crackle with pungency and the must o' mousier redolent with chopped cucumber and mint. The shirazi, meanwhile, is a salad heavy on the tomatoes and olive oil, while sabzi khordon could in a pinch double for hummus. The Caspian platter's portions come in separate plates; it's the crispy tanori, baked in a tandoor oven in the front of the restaurant and speckled with sesame seeds, that unites these disparate entrées into a dance of deliciousness.
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Then there's something called tah dig, burnt rice that looks like a yellow Brillo pad but is actually grains scraped from the bottom of a rice pot. It's a crunchy mess of goodness, and the Caspian cooks pour three different type of stews over different sections of the tah dig—the sweet-and-sour fesenjon, a lovely ghormeh sabzi with kidney beans emanating earthiness, and the tomato-y gheimeh. The overlapping results are like a Mark Twain novel: apparently simple but engrossing. The stews by themselves also impress, particularly the gheimeh accentuated with fried eggplant, slightly mushy veal and spiraled French fries that are a delicious distraction.
The owners of Caspian Restaurant named their business after the world's largest landlocked body of water for a reason, and their seafood servings live up to the sea's salty character. Onion juices subsume the jumbo shrimp, which are cooked kebab-style and encircled by fields of puffy basmati rice. The fresh trout, skin nicely fried, lies alongside a sabzi polo of verdant chopped parsley and cilantro. Whitefish is even better, the flesh wet, soft and sublime and served with a square of the peculiar-but-pretty spinach soufflé koko sabzi.
There's entertainment on weekends, but if you've seen one belly dancer, you've seen them all. More intriguing is a sax player who performs every Thursday and eventually wails a mournful "Those Were the Days." It's hard to avoid the conclusion that some of the Persians hereabouts dream of their homeland every night. Another serving of food quickly brings the misty-eyed back to the present.
Caspian Restaurant, 14100 Culver Dr., Irvine, (949) 651-8454. Open Sun.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri., 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m.; Sat., 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m. Beer and wine. Dinner for two, $30, food only. All major credit cards accepted.