IF YOU HAVEN'T heeded the advice of The Clash and rocked the Casbah lately, it's time to head to Livermore. Owner Benjamin Jafari circuited Bay Area festivals, farmers markets and corporate events with his Mediterranean/Middle Eastern catering company for years before expanding his business in January to include Casbah Mediterranean Kitchen.
Jafari, a native of Iran, is no restaurant rookie. He owned a Mediterranean restaurant in Southern California and was general manager at Hyatt Regency Incline Village's Ciao Mien before launching his catering business. In addition to family recipes, he brings to his business a philosophy degree, studies in microbiology and a love of botany.
For Casbah, he envisioned a "humble, neighborhood cafe" like those found around the Mediterranean and Middle East. From a space that formerly housed an Extreme Pizza, he created a clean, casual restaurant peppered with just a few understated Middle Eastern touches such as vibrant scarves suspended across the high ceilings.
A compact open kitchen puts a focused cook on display as he plates gyros and throws samosas in the deep fryer. The walls display artwork from rotating local artists -- currently, colorful kaleidoscope photography of Livermore landmarks.
No doubt the atmosphere feels more authentic on Thursdays and Sundays when belly dancers perform.
There's also sidewalk seating, which looks inviting with strung white lights and blue and turquoise pots.
Waking your palate
Casbah's menu features regional cuisine of the Mediterranean and the Middle East, namely Greek, Armenian, Turkish, Persian and Moroccan fare. For me, the joy of this menu comes from growing reacquainted with spices and flavors inexplicably neglected by mainstream American food culture.
For instance, two dishes come with barberries shipped directly from Jafari's family in Iran. Sumac, a tart purple spice that often replaces salt, sits at every table and is seemingly sprinkled on every dish.
Casbah is a healthy haunt and a logical hangout for vegetarians and vegans. Jafari says everything from the tabbouleh to the kebabs is made fresh daily.
Vegetarians will flock to their namesake platter ($8.95) with samosa, falafel, baba ganoush, garlicky hummus, dolmas, mast-o-khair (Iranian yogurt and cucumber dip) and pita. I loved the variety of flavors and textures on this platter. The dolmas were particularly refreshing with a bright squeeze of lemon juice. As always happens, we ran out of pita long before dip.
Freshness also was fully apparent with the shredded carrot salad ($4) and the minty tabbouleh ($4). A less promising starter was the thick, slightly burned lentil soup ($2.95), whose plainness made it forgettable.
The Greek gyros ($8.95), lamb broiled on a vertical rotisserie and served on pita, are a popular item and I can see why. With an ample portion of succulent meat, this is such a satisfying meal and for about the same price as fast food.
I found the kebabs most enticing, however, because of the rich spices and the opportunity to explore flavors that are less universal. Just when I think I am so tired of chicken that I well never eat it again, the grilled Moroccan chicken kebab ($12.95) arrived at our table. It was moist and tasty with curry the primary player, followed by turmeric and cumin. The dinner plate came with Persian-style basmati and barberry saffron rice.
Meanwhile, the Persian kebab ($12.95), made from ground beef and lamb, onion and Persian spices, was a reminder that the simplest sounding dishes are sometimes the most labor-intensive. The mixture is kneaded for 1½ hours, then molded to a skewer, where it must be just the right consistency to stay intact while broiling. Although I loved the strong onion flavor, I wished the meat had been a bit more tender.
Kids come to Casbah
Parents need not shy from bringing picky eaters along as most textures and proteins will be familiar. Everything on the menu is available in smaller portions, including a junior gyro. Casbah accommodates more stubborn palates with hamburgers and hot dogs.
Dessert offerings included a not-so-flaky, not-so-special baklava ($1.95), Persian ice cream ($4) and faloudeh ($4), Persian icy noodles flavored with rosewater. A combo of the ice cream and faloudeh was awash in rosewater, making it a very sweet and lovely note on which to end a savory meal.
Customers will find servers helpful and ready to answer any questions about the menu.
Between Demetri's Greek Tavern and Casbah Mediterranean Kitchen, Livermore now has more than its fair share of restaurants to appease hummus and gyro cravings. Casbah's flavorful fare is well worth a gander.
Contact Chrissa Ventrelle at email@example.com.
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