First there was The Caspian, a full-service Middle Eastern restaurant in the tangle of strip malls north of Fields Ertel Road. Then came this streamlined lunch-only downtown version, which features inexpensive Persian style wraps, soups, and sides in a small shotgun café tucked along Court Street. The Express has the potential to be a cut above a falafel joint—the dozen items on the menu range from very good representatives of casual Middle Eastern fare peppered with a few impressive details—but a couple of gristly gyro workouts left us wondering if they were going through some growing pains. Where the Chicago-style gyros may miss, the chicken kabob is a moist, onion-savory hit and the nutty falafels are hot, greaseless, and fragrant with cumin. Vegetarians can choose Kookoo-ye Sabzi, a thin soufflé-like patty of spinach, herbs, and fenugreek. All of these sandwiches, as well as Olovieh, a Persian chicken salad (unfortunately absent from the menu all three times we visited), are generously dressed with a tangy yogurt blend, shredded lettuce, and tomatoes. Our only complaint: the flour tortillas they were wrapped in were flavorless and insubstantial, as if a hot Dagwood was built on plain Wonder Bread. A big minus, since they advertise homemade pita. Other standouts include the Iranian comfort of noodle soup, Ash-e Reshteh, redolent with garlic, herbs, and kashk (a highly prized, tart whey product), and ice cream perfumed with rosewater and pistachios, a bewitching delicacy that may challenge some palates to get past the sensorial memory of grandmother’s linen closet. The modestly appointed café keeps it diner-simple with seven tables, carryout options, and a $6 price cap.
The Caspian Express
29 E. Court St., downtown
Originally published in the January 2009 issue.