You'd never dream, walking into this shiny black and chrome restaurant, perched just across a narrow street from the whizzing traffic of I-25, that this building once housed a Denny's. In fact, that is just one of the remarkable transformations owner Moe Sharifi has made at Caspian Caf, the only restaurant in Colorado Springs, to my knowledge, that serves a variety of dishes ranging from Greek to Persian in origin, prepared authentically with ingredients straight from the source.
The name refers generally to the area surrounding the Caspian Sea, most notably northern Iran. But Persian cooking and its far-reaching influence over miles and centuries extends to Turkey and Greece, and far beyond to Morocco. Caspian Caf's menu leans significantly toward Greece with traditional dishes like moussaka and baklava, hummus and baba ghanouj, but the Persian influence is even stronger, evident in dishes accented with walnuts, pomegranate, honey, olives and saffron. Just listing those ingredients together evokes the scent of the place -- earthy and exotic at once.
On any given Saturday night, Caspian Caf's crowd is a pleasant mix of families with children and couples out for a special meal. The atmosphere is relaxed but the service is strictly professional with an emphasis rightly on the food.
A recent meal with a friend demonstrated some of the pleasant surprises of this place -- an affordable bottle of good French wine, a respectful server who allowed us to linger comfortably after dinner, and two stellar entrees.
The Kebab with Tomato Sauce and Yogurt ($10) is a colorful dish with knockout flavors. Rather than the familiar kebab made with cubed marinated meat, this is the style served in Turkey and the countries surrounding it -- a ground beef and lamb mixture, seasoned and patted into a long, dense log, grilled and served over basmati rice. The tomato sauce, very basic and freshly made, is sweetened with honey, its sweetness set off by the thick, hand-pressed yogurt, the consistency of sour cream minus the bite.
A traditional Persian soup, Aashe-shalgham preceded the entre and almost overshadowed it with its exquisite flavor. Small lamb meatballs float in a broth fragrant with mint and turmeric, accented by tender cubes of turnip and enriched with a thick bottom layer of rice and bulgur. The side salad that comes with the entrees is a traditional Greek salad with crunchy veggies over lettuce and a sprinkling of feta cheese. Ours came with a pungent pomegranate dressing and was quite tasty, though it could have benefited from a larger plate.
Across the table, a steaming bowl of Seafood and Fennel Tagine ($21.75) smelled, well, healthful. The flavors in this dish are subtle and complex -- chunks of rock fish, a type of snapper, mingle with shrimp atop a rich fish stock flavored with lemon and chermoula, a Moroccan/Turkish spice paste made of chilies, garlic, lemon and shallots. Tender chunks of potato fill out the dish.
An earlier visit to Caspian Caf introduced me to the succulent Moroccan Roast Chicken ($17.50), rubbed with chermoula and stuffed with fresh lemons and oranges, roasted at high heat and served in a pool of its own broth. Wear a bib for this dish as the meat literally drips off the bones.
All of the entrees on the menu can be enjoyed at either lunch or dinner; the lunch portions are slightly smaller and less elaborate in presentation, and significantly lower in cost. The Lamb Tagine with Artichokes and Fava Beans, for example, flavored with ginger, saffron and cilantro, is $9.75 at lunch and $22 at dinner. The lunch menu also features a variety of sandwiches and salads, including a traditional Gyros ($7.50), Falafel ($7.50) and some interesting cross-hybrid creations, like The Gods Must be Crazy ($7.50), a herb and tomato tortilla wrapped around a filling of grilled chicken, tomatoes, lettuce and orange-infused cream cheese.
The bar at Caspian Caf is quite attractive and comfortable, nice for solo diners and couples desiring privacy. One quiet December evening, I retreated there for dessert with a newspaper and discovered the Orange and Saffron Caramel Cream ($5.75) -- a chilled orange and saffron flavored custard swimming in a thin caramel sauce, light but filling, not too sweet and delicately scented.
Sharifi's brother owns Briarmart, a Middle Eastern specialty foods market in Briargate, and the restaurant benefits from that connection, importing many of its ingredients through Briarmart as well as directly. The kitchen uses extra virgin olive oil from Turkey, imported by the barrel, and many other imported ingredients that greatly enhance the flavors of the dishes.
Executive Chef Daniel White has been with the restaurant and with Sharifi for more than a year, since before it opened, and his accomplishments in that time are impressive. Caspian Caf boasts a menu that introduces patrons to dishes previously unknown to many Springs diners, well prepared and carefully conceived. It's a long journey from Denny's to the Caspian Sea, envisioned and realized right next to I-25.
4375 Sinton Rd.
Open Mon. Sat., 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.