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July 26, 2010 at 7:37 AM

Caravan Kebab: it’s a wonderful world, welcome to it

Corrected version

There are times in my life when luck and a drive-by introduces me to a restaurant that immediately earns a space on my “favorites” list. Like the time I was driving along South Jackson Street and spotted the original Pho Bac, stopping for my first bowl of Vietnamese pho 20-some years ago. Or the time I veered off Highway 99 into the parking lot of the original T&T Chinese seafood restaurant in Shoreline only weeks after it opened — and instantly became a regular.

Now ask me how many times I’ve driven past the odd little building in Firdale Village, home to a string of restaurants five minutes from my front door, and never bothered to stop at all. (Hundreds.) Indeed, I’d noticed the latest changeover — from Pomegranat to Caravan Kebab — thanks to the big banner on the side of the building. Certainly, the word “kebab” captured my fancy. But until I heard from trusted Eaters that what lies within deserves my attention (and by extension, yours), I’d yet to hit the brakes. Well, halt the camels: they weren’t kidding!

This building, part of the Firdale Village shopping complex — just west of Highway 99 and east of Highway 104 at 9711 Firdale Avenue in Edmonds — houses a barber shop, a pet stop, and now, Caravan Kebab, home to a world of warm welcome and a glorious globe-spanning menu.

“Omigod, this place is amazing,” wrote Faren Bachelis, who wasted no time before rushing home from her first lunch late last month — a lamb kebab sandwich — before shooting me an e-mail. The new chef and owner, she said, is a “very nice, unassuming guy” and the cafe’s atmosphere “sweet, comfortable and inviting” with “warm tone walls, kinda funky prints and some traditional style art.”

In addition to her sandwich built “with feta, fresh Arabic flatbread and the most wonderful blend of spices, garlic, hummus, yogurt, lamb — textures I’ve never eaten,” she enthused, “I mean, he even has Russian borscht, Hungarian chicken and stuffed cabbage rolls along with traditional Indian, Greek and Middle Eastern fare. I can’t wait to go back and try dinner.”

Kebabs are the house specialty. At lunch, they’re offered as at a bargain-priced $4.99. Add a buck for feta. I’m with Faren: the lamb wrap is “amazing.”

As for that borscht? This big bright cup, built with beets, cabbage as well as other vegetables, was $3.50, and the best I’ve ever eaten.

Longtime reader and Shoreline resident Oscar Lind was every bit as enthusiastic about Caravan Kebab when he e-mailed to sing its praises. “I’ll bet you already know quite a bit about it,” he wrote. (Only what Faren had told me!) “We were charmed by the hostess and delighted with the food,” said Oscar, insisting he and his wife, Carol, “sure hope they make a go of it, because the food is just extraordinary — and we want more!” Me too, pal.

Which is what brought me back for lunch late last week (see photos above) after having dinner two nights earlier. I, too, was charmed by the outgoing host and shy, blue-eyed hostess who proudly serve halal meats, and delighted with their food and the mood.

Inside Caravan Kebab you’ll find a dozen tables in a homey atmosphere whose decorative touches extend from hookhas (in photo, right) to Hafez (a colorful carpet with poetic script in Farsi).

This cold appetizer is a Persian inspiration, eggplant rolls ($4.45) stuffed with ground walnuts and pomegranate molasses. There’s a short beer and wine list, but I chose the housemade “sharbat” a non-alcoholic blend of lemon juice, soda and brown sugar.

Among the hot appetizers is this delicate “Russian Blintz” (actually two blintzes, $3.50!): ground chicken-stuffed crepes.

The folks across the room were “Opa!”-ing over their saganaki (Greek kaseri cheese, flambeed tableside with ouzo), while my son was forking into this excellent chili chicken (made with breast meat, $10.95). It’s one of more than a dozen curries available at dinner with rice and fresh vegetables. Next time I’m trying the vegetarian saag paneer, only $6.99 at lunch.

So, what’s the story here where the cross-cultural menu has tongues wagging and first-time patrons pledging to return? That’s what I was longing to know, so after two meals, I introduced myself to the owners, who graciously posed for this photo.

They cook. They serve. They’re Tatyana Kashcheyeva (left) and Shahzad Raja who partnered in March to create Caravan Kebab.

I wasn’t the only one who’d been driving by without stopping at Firdale Village, explains co-owner Shahzad Raja, who bought into the restaurant in March, when it was still known as Pomegranat. Until he connected with its owner — Ukrainian cook Tatyana Kashcheyeva — and spearheaded its latest metamorphosis, this place was Deadsville.

“The man who owned it before me was only open from 6 a.m. till noon,” recalls Tatyana, who cooked at Pomegranat before buying the restaurant and opening for dinner. She was the chief cook and bottlewasher, and though skilled at preparing the foods of Eastern Europe (and having briefly owned a piroshky cafe in the U-District) she admits she knew little about waiting tables and running the front of the house.

By the time Tatyana met Shahzad (long story, involving locking his keys in his car and a ride with a stranger who worked at a Firdale Village antiques store), the Ukrainian cook had endured a week in which only a few tables showed up to eat. “She was so upset. She was losing her business,” insists Shahzad. And that’s when he introduced himself and told her “I’ll cook for you!” And if that sounds like a match made in heaven, listen to this:

Shahzad, 36, is a native of Pakistan who has traveled the world practicing the craft of cookery, with notable stays in Hong Kong, Thailand, India, Turkey and Greece. His eyes light up when he speaks of the Greek island of Kos, where learned tricks of the trade from 3-star chef and any number of Greek grandmas during his 7-year residence. It’s also where he met his future wife, Laura, a world traveler who works for Edmonds-based travel guru Rick Steves.

After two years of long-distance phone calls, Laura convinced her boyfriend to come to America, where she had extended family and a home-base in Edmonds. Now married and an Edmonds resident himself, Shahzad insists “food is art, and it’s my passion” — one he’s expressing at this cheap-eatsters idea of a dining destination.

Before showing up on Tatyana’s doorstep, Shahzad worked (briefly) at SkyCity at the Space Needle and at Cedars Restaurant in the U-District, and was the manager at the Kabab House in Greenwood for more than a year, all the while hoping to find a little restaurant to call his own. That he unexpectedly found one after locking his keys in his car is a misfortune that turned into good fortune for the talented Tatyana (whose borscht is even better than my Russian great-grandmother’s).

So I’m here to join others who’ve come to call their place their own: neighbors who’ve found an inexpensive passport to a trip around the world. Come see for yourself and tell me what you think. Caravan Kebab is open daily for lunch (11 a.m.-3:30 p.m.) and dinner (5-10 p.m.). And if it gets too busy, let me know: I’ll run over and help wait tables in exchange for a big bowlful Tatyana’s handmade pelmeni.

Information in this post, originally published July 26, 2010, was corrected July 26 2010. A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that Shahzad Raja cooked at SkyCity and Cedars Restaurant. He was not a cook at those restaurants, but did work in the restaurants’ dining rooms.

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