Photograph by Kevin A. Roberts
Café Natasha’s Kabob International
3200 S. Grand
Lunch and dinner daily
Average Main Course: $8–$17
Reservations: Only for five or more
Chef: Behshid Bahrami
Café Natasha—or to be proper, Café Natasha’s Kabob International—has a new face, literally. A longtime favorite for Middle Eastern meals, it’s traveled from downtown to the Loop to South Grand, keeping its fans and adding new ones. Now, Natasha herself, the café’s namesake and daughter of owners Behshid and Hamishe Bahrami, has brought new ideas and some new tastes, too.
Behshid greets visitors and chats with friends, while Hamishe runs the kitchen. But Natasha, a graduate student emblematic of the social-media generation, is shaking things up. A Tuesday-night hummus bar? Sure enough, and we’d call it Hummus Plus, with various toppings. Two pages of new menu items to join the old favorites? Indeed.
This is a menu from which it would be easy to create an entire meal of appetizers, though the temptations of the main courses are strong. Over the years, we’ve happily eaten the ta-deeg, crispy rice topped with a lamb sauce, as well as osh, the great vegan soup. But a new eggplant appetizer features two old standbys and a new one: The familiar baba ghanouj and related kashke-bademjune now have a plate-mate simply called the pomegranate eggplant appetizer. Strips of eggplant are sautéed with garlic, tomatoes, and onions, along with chickpeas, all touched with a sweet-tart pomegranate sauce. A fallback is the garlic lover’s delight, bringing pickled garlic, fresh-grilled garlic, and a garlic-yogurt dip.
We always succumb to a kebab, though choosing one from the eight on the menu is not easy. This time, it was barq kebab, slices of flank steak marinated to tenderness and seasoned with what seems to be cumin, pepper, and sumac. Beef tongue was a childhood favorite; the Bahrami family cooks it differently, but it’s still succulent, topped with curry mustard. It’s part of Café Natasha’s new style, with considerable use of spices and herbs that have no Persian ancestry, but which demonstrate that the world’s foods, like the world’s people, are more alike than different. Jamaican jerk spices aid tilapia, and Bulgarian feta cheese goes on salads.
We tried one of the new bowls, spicy tandoori biryani, with a base of romaine, onion, and cukes, plus pepperoncini and tomato layered with seasoned basmati rice. Chunks of spicy tandoori chicken wear a “homemade yogurt Italian dressing”; that’s the menu description, but we also found cumin and mint. Baked pita chips and Bulgarian cheese top the whole thing. It’s a mélange of flavors, textures, and temperatures, and comes darn close to being addictive.
While Hamishe’s homemade (American-style) pies are always tempting, we like the faludeh, an icy dessert flavored with lemon and rosewater, containing pieces of rice noodles for crunch. Top it with the Persian ice cream, chunky with pistachios and scented with even more rosewater.
Servers here really understand the menu, so don’t hesitate to ask questions. The wine list has been carefully assembled to complement the food. And oh yes, there are vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, and even halal items, niches underserved by most local restaurants.
By Joe and Anne Pollack