I Miss the Guilt

I'll say this for Hank. His rabbit habit -- nuts and twigs -- sometimes takes us to new heights. Half the time I try to fight it. Put in a word for ye good olde burger and pommes frites. But today, like, this evening, actually, he wasn't taking no...he would brook no opposition. Put it that way. He was driving.

So we're heading west on Adams, turning south onto Park. Ah. Bet I know where he's going. That cute little place...Café Caspian. That was it. Persian. Healthy. Haven't been for a couple of years.

Two minutes later -- whack!? -- there it isn't. Something else is taking its space.

"No worries," says Hank. He does a 180 and, across the road, pulls up beside a woody, patio-out-front place with carpets swooping along the rafters to form sun shelters, and, wow, long, colorful, wooden benches with pillows. Coo-ol.

Sign in front says "Soltan Banoo."

We walk up wooden steps to the deck. I instantly plonk myself down on a big, Persian-looking bench-couch. Tall, slim, pale Caucasian gal with really short hair comes up.

"So what happened to that Caspian joint?" I ask.

"Café Caspian? It moved over here. The old space was too small. It's the same people, though, Mahi and her two daughters, Roxanne and Sanam."

Café Caspian, I remember now, started as a tea shop with gifts and crafts and then they began to serve food. It was tiny, arty, clunky, with wild colors, lots of bumping shoulders, hip collisions. Loved it. The new location certainly has more room. It's more woody, less colorful. Still, I like it. Arches decorated with blue-and-white mosaic protect the inside dining room, and there are green lanterns, weathered bits of carved wood I bet they got from a market in Tehran, and those "flying" carpets for shade. Can't help thinking of that great Persian linesmith, Omar Khayyam. "Awake! For Morning in the Bowl of Night / Has flung the stone that puts the stars to flight / And lo, the hunter of the east has caught / The sultan's turret in a noose of light."

"Hey, dude, you some communist or something?" mutters Hank when I babble it all out. He's kidding. He knows my dad drummed those poems into us kids.

"No, dude, but Omar Khayyam, that old tent-maker, he knew how to enjoy life. This was Persia, what? 1100 A.D.? 'Come, fill the cup, and in the fire of spring / The winter garment of repentance fling...' The Rubayyat, dude."

"I know, I know. You've bleated it a thousand times. 'The bird of time has but a little way / To fly...and lo, da boid is on da wing.' Let's eat!"

So, hey, we do -- even though I discover I've got only four bucks. Hank moans and digs into his wallet, comes up with, wow. Maybe thirty. So I get a hummus wrap ($5.50). Yeah, I know. Fusion food like a hundred other places, but I can tell you that this is just so d'lish. Pile of stuff wrapped in a brownish pita: green and red lettuce, olives, avocado, feta cheese, bit of bulgur wheat, plus crisp tortilla triangles on the side, and a soy-ginger dressing. And it comes on this beautiful blue-and-white plate. And with a really quenching glass of lemon water.

Hank gets something grander. A $9.95 fesenjoon chicken. That means pomegranate stew, a "bewildering dish," as the menu confesses, chicken drowned in a puréed mess of walnuts and pomegranate with basmati rice. I trade a slice off of my wrap for a chunk of his chicken. It has that sweet thing Persians love. Next to the stew, he's got another oval plate loaded with cucumber salad, and in between the two, there are piled-up red sumac berries to put on the chicken. I mean, this is sophisticated stuff.

I'm pretty okay with my wrap, but now Hank has the bit between his teeth. He's getting a vegan salad ($5.95, with smoked tofu, avo, and soy-ginger dressing), and hey, then the man blithely orders up a plate of baba ghanoush (baked eggplant, tahini, and garlic, $5.95).

"Dude," he says, as I watch him turn from plate to plate, "when you get something good, you go for it, right?"

While Hank's still eating, I head inside to pay the bill. It's his money flapping in my hand. Mahi, the owner, is there serving the dozen customers chowing away among old Persian paintings, lamps of beaten copper, and an ancient-looking parchment with a protection prayer from the Koran.

"We had to leave Café Caspian," she says. "It was too, too small."

And this new name?

"'Soltan Banoo'? It is the name of my grandmother, whom I love very much."

Nice. I check the menu again as we go out. 'Course now I see that on Saturdays they have a lamb stew (abgousht, $7.95) and also a ghalieh mahi, which isn't mahimahi but a salmon in a tamarind sauce with some curry in it ($10.95). Definitely sounds interesting.

Then we're back in the West, out on the street. It's already dark.

"Thanks, man," I say. "You know, you're getting better at this -- I mean, I don't even notice that this stuff's healthy. There's only one problem."

"What's that?" says Hank.

"I miss the guilt."

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