February 26, 2010

Iranian kabob house provides dinner and a show
by Beck Ireland

Places, everyone. At Caspian Bistro, all the world's a stage, and all the diners merely players.

Notwithstanding its humble strip mall location, the Overland Park restaurant boasts a theatrical interior that could pass as Rick's Café Américain in an amateur production of Casablanca. The Kasbah theme runs thick through the blue veins of the faux marbre walls, awash in pinks and tans and adorned with counterfeit still life oil paintings in gilt frames and elaborate imitation cut crystal sconces. To the right, wide camelback booths mimic arches cut out of sheetrock and supported by columns, also done up in fake marble. In the center, crowded, crooked rows of black granite veneer pedestal tables take up much of the space in the main dining room, particularly when seated to capacity on a busy weekend night.

All aisles of the dining room lead to a cherry wood bar, which, regrettably, looks as if it came from the showroom of a DirectBuy Club. To justify the bar — and also the newly acquired liquor license it rode in on — the establishment offers a long list of "signature" cocktails. Sadly, none are concocted as a campy homage to a desert oasis, leaving patrons to wonder, “What would Lawrence of Arabia drink?” Nevertheless, the place does offer some great domestic beer specials.

To complete the dramatic effect, on Friday and Saturday nights, the piped-in music gets a little louder and a belly dancer enthusiastically works the room for about half an hour. For a few dollars stuffed into her coin bra, she'll linger with your party, paying special attention to any guests of honor. In the tightly packed space, the dancer's hips carom between the shoulders of diners. Luckily, this dancer is all bump and no grind, although a bare midriff at table height can be disconcerting to some.

However, all "illusions of grandeur" aside, the cuisine at Caspian Bistro is very real. A mix of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and Iranian dishes, the menu offers plenty of options for appetizers and main courses. For starters, diners should avoid the regular Mediterranean staples, such as hummus ($5.49) and dolmeh ($6.79), and opt for the kashk badenjan($6.79) — babganoush's creamier cousin — which balances the slightly bitter taste of broiled eggplant with tart yogurt, sautéed onions, garlic, and dried mint. But don't forget to ask for an order of warm, toasted pita bread. Trying to eat the hearty dip on the lavosh that's inexplicably brought to your table with butter is like trying to eat it on tissue paper. A few pita triangles come with the hummus but not the other dips, and you're going to need more.

The true stars of the Caspian Bistro menu are the kabob selections ($10.99-$23.48). Filet mignon, boneless and on-the-bone chicken, salmon, lamb, Cornish hen, shrimp and/or vegetables are skewered and grilled over an open fire. A saffron marinade for the meat, which gives the chicken and shrimp a tanning salon orange glow, looks suspicious but tastes salty, peppery and delicious. The vegetable kabobs, seasoned lightly, are made up of mostly green peppers and onions, with an occasional tomato or zucchini wedge. A more adventurous vegetarian option is the vegetarian ghormeh sabzi ($10.99), a red kidney bean stew infused with cilantro, green onion, and parsley.

According to the menu, entrees can be served with an abundance of rice, considering you could potentially choose twice as your side dish the basmati rice topped with saffron, and some already come with basmati rice flavored with dill, cilantro, and leek. On the advice of the wait staff, it's best to order a half-rice/half vegetable combination. The rice is fluffy and moist and seasoned well, and even at a half order is plenty. That is, unless you're in the mood for a baked potato, which can come with your order. In addition, a mysterious dinner salad with an even more mysterious dressing also is served with your entrée.

From Monday through Friday, the restaurant serves lunch, offering scaled-down versions of many of the dinner entrees for $7.50. All lunch specials, excluding salads, are served with choice of rice or French fries. Diners at either lunch or dinner can apply for the free frequent diner rewards program, which lets customers earn points toward free food.

For dessert, Caspian Bistro offers two types of baklava. The larger version is outsourced from another establishment and doesn't seem as delicate or complicated as the smaller homemade piece. This baklava has a crisp, feathery outer shell and sweet, nutty filling. In addition, the homemade rolette, a white cake rolled with cream and topped with pistachios and drizzled chocolate, is a soft, creamy dream. Clearly, neither dessert is acting as a mere prop.

Beck Ireland can be contacted at beck.Ireland@gmail.com.

Caspian Bistro
8973 Metcalf
Overland Park, KS 66212
(913) 901-9911

Sun.-Thurs. 11 am-9:30 pm
Fri.-Sat. 11 am-10:30 pm

(photos by from Caspian Bistro's website)

Ratings: (out of four stars)

FOOD: ***
PRICE: $-$$

Key: $-under $10 • $$-$10 to $20 • $$$-over $20