There's a country called Azerbaijan. A month ago I had never heard of it. Would have confused it with the magical prison from Harry Potter. Azerbaijan shares a border with Russia to the north, Iran to the south. To the west is Armenia and on the east coast is the Caspian Sea.
Go one country over from Armenia and you end up in Turkey. Turkey is about 10x the landmass of Azerbaijan with a population of 80 million compared to 10 million. Running along its northern coast is the Black Sea; positioned to Turkey the way Lake Superior is to Michigan's Upper Peninsula
Leyla is from Azerbaijan. Ahmet from Turkey. Both started over 5,000 miles away from Chicago, yet met here in the city, and launched "Black & Caspian" at 2908 North Broadway.
Note: If you missed Part 1, check it out here.
All of this to say, the idea for Black & Caspian wasn't just a random daydream for Leyla when she was sitting at her desk in the CIBC office. She's been working toward this dream her entire life. Born in Azerbaijan, she went to high school in Russia, started college back in Azerbaijan and then received a scholarship to study hospitality in Switzerland. She worked in hospitality in Belgium then journeyed to America, opening a small popup restaurant in Bloomingdale.
Ahmet made his journey to the U.S. about eight years ago and matches Leyla's love for hospitality and customer service with an equal passion for being a chef. Ahmet's family had a restaurant in Istanbul. His brothers are chefs. He's been preparing meals since he was a kid.
There was an instant connection between the two.
"I met him after I got my job in wealth management and then we were like, oh my God, we are like soul mates, you know, this is what we want to do," Leyla said. "And he was like, okay, let's start saving money. Let's start looking for opportunities."
Time to start dreaming up the perfect place
What would the restaurant look like? What kind of food would they serve? Where would it be?
"We knew we didn't have a lot of money, so we had to find that perfect place that wasn't too big, too small, not too expensive, but also a place that would allow us to do this concept," Leyla said. "When we saw the Troy restaurant, we thought, you know, it's on a nice street and the concept that we have is modern Mediterranean wine bistro. And I don't think this street has something like that. There's Pars Cove nearby, it's a wine bistro, but it was a different concept."
Now it was time to start planning the menu. They wanted to offer a wide variety to their future diners.
"We didn't want to do like an Azerbaijani cuisine and a Turkish cuisine or a specific cuisine, you know," Leyla said. "We wanted to do something that has something for everybody. So we literally like months before we opened we were writing up a menu, crossing things off, starting over. We wanted to find a perfect ground. Ahmet's obviously the person behind the menu."
They started testing things out, asking guests for their feedback. But one of the challenges with American diners, specifically here in the Midwest, is everyone's so nice. It's hard to translate if, "Yeah, it's good," means they really liked it or thought it was just okay. Leyla and Ahmet had to learn how to decipher these Midwestern reviews.
No matter the dish, the one guarantee is the food will always be fresh.
"If you look at our shopping trend, we shop like four times a week. Because we get everything fresh, fresh, fresh. And then we try to sell out of it and then you get everything fresh again. We try not to hold onto anything. Freeze anything. We don't cook anything in advance and hold it. All the prep happens every day."
One of their go-to shopping spots is the family-owned Sahar International Supermarket at 4851 North Kedzie. The inventory is small so the produce and meats are always fresh. Ahmet and Leyla make their purchases then bring the supplies back and start preparing. They bake their own bread and make their own baklava. Open their doors every weeknight at 5 pm.
Opening the Doors
I went to Black & Caspian on Saturday night, February 1st. I had family in town to celebrate the last night of a Writing 6 show at Second City. I went online, booked a table for me and Ashley, my parents, Uncle John and Aunt Patty, my cousin Clair. When you've been living in Chicago more than five years, there's always a pride in taking your family to the local spot. To Pequod's instead of Gino's East. To the hole-in-the-wall Italian Beef shop over Portillo's. That local pride goes up a level when the restaurant is right in your neighborhood. Right around the corner.
We walked into Black & Caspian and it was packed. I said the name of our reservation, Leyla double checked their system. Nothing's there. I immediately assumed this was my mistake. I'm the king of messing up things like this. But Leyla apologized, said they've been having trouble with the online booking tool. We wait a few minutes, really not long at all, until they push a couple tables together. More apologies. And then a free appetizer.
I ordered something called the beef tagine. The dish consists of fillet mignon, zucchini, mushrooms, peppers, sun dried tomatoes, walnut, apricot, dried cherry sesame seeds, all of this cooked and served in a clay pot. You know a dish is good when you forget what anyone else ordered at the table. I vaguely remember the stuffed chicken santa sofia (tendered chicken breast, asparagus, parmesan, sour cream sauce, served with rice) and grilled branzino (grilled branzino, mashed potatoes, seasonal veggies, blanc sauce, grilled lemon) making an appearance. Everything washed down with a couple bottles of Turkish wine.
"The wines are from Turkey because Ahmet is from Turkey and he knows the wines," Leyla said. "We have like three reds and two whites. They're a little bit dry, but they're very powerful in nature and they have a very unique personality, these wines. People really react positively to them."
At the end of the meal, Leyla stopped by the table and started to share their story. She apologized again for the booking mix-up. Talked about leaving her job at CIBC. Going all in on the restaurant.
After I interviewed Leyla a few weeks later and started thinking about where to start or end this story, I kept thinking back to that canceled dinner reservation. On the surface, it was a mistake. The restaurant made an error the same way a multibillion dollar hotel chain makes an error, or the way a large rental car company has a reservation disappear. But you go a layer deeper and the story is so much different. It wasn't Black & Caspian's fault at all. They had the lower cost version of the website because every dollar saved over the last year went into buying the place. Securing tables. Plates. Glasses. Bottles of wine. The four trips to Sahar Market each week, making sure everything is fresh to order.
The website will get better. They already upgraded the booking tool. All of those little things will keep improving. What makes a place like Black & Caspian special is how they respond to something out of their control. Pushing the tables together. The free appetizer. Making us feel at home. We weren't rushed to order and there wasn't that feeling of trying to turn the table over. It's those little things that matter and it's what makes places like Black & Caspain so important to have in our neighborhood. The stretch of Broadway from Diversey to Belmont is that much better for having Black & Caspian.
"We love this industry, we love the emotional part of this business," Leyla said. "The clients, the customers, the experiences that we prepare for them. How is that food going to make them feel? This is what we think about."
Facing the Unknown
Having an issue with the website seems like small potatoes compared to this new uncontrollable situation. Black & Caspian, like Renaldi's, like all restaurants on Broadway and all around Chicago aren't able to serve guests in-house.
But for Leyla and Ahmet, they've done what they've always done: stay scrappy, make adjustments, keep the dream alive.
"We had been watching the news closely and we anticipated this," Leyla said. "We thought this should be the best and safest way to minimize the impact of the virus for the safety of our employees and customers. All we care about at this time is everyone's safety and well being."
"Ahmet and I are staying optimistic and we are intensifying our already strict sanitation measures for the safety of our guests," Leyla said. "We have also signed petitions for small business support that were forwarded to us by Lakeview East Chamber of Commerce and we cannot wait to open our doors for regular dine-in service again!"
It's hard to picture right now, but there will be a time in June, maybe July, when we'll be walking down Broadway again. We'll pass underneath that blast of pizza smell right in front of Renaldi's. There'll be people out on the patio. Telling stories. Laughing. The conversations will be about weekend plans and the day at the office. Even the most mundane things like riding a bus, riding the El, these will feel new and seem like a big step up from the months before.
We'll cross the street and open the doors to Black & Caspian.
It'll be good to be back.
Medium Rare (despite the name) is not normally a food blog, but I want to use this space in the coming weeks to feature some of my favorite restaurants in my neighborhood. Running a restaurant is never easy, especially right now, and it's important we support these local spots through a difficult time. You can check out Black & Caspian's menu right here and they also setup a GoFundMe page to help support their employees.
Next Monday I'll be running a story called "Chicago, Argentina," focused on the restaurant owners of Tango Sur, Bodega Sur, Folklore, El Mercado Food Mart, and Ñ.