Fish out of Water

Kaspia Seafood Restaurant, 9th Floor, Four Seasons Hotel, 1 Neftchilar Avenue, Baku

Tel.: +994 12 404 2424                       www.fourseasons.com

Almost exactly three months to go to the big day! The day when my daughter, my youngest, becomes someone else’s chattel. Haha, good luck with that then, George! No, in truth, she will always be her own woman, there’s not much question of that, she’s been brought up that way, and, being quite a mover and shaker in a male dominated industry, this petite little blonde is no-one’s pushover but I hope she becomes a good and tender chatelaine of this wonderful young man’s heart. Forever after. They make a truly lovely couple and the whole family is very excited about the forthcoming nuptials. Naturally, as this is my one and only opportunity to be the Mother of the Bride, I’m taking my duties very seriously indeed and travelling back and forth to the UK on ‘bridal trips’ every five minutes, or so it seems, to enthusiastically help organise the big event. And this is why I had to put my own romantic inclinations on the back burner this year and spend Valentine’s Day apart from the lovely husband. He hid a Russian heart shaped card in my suitcase, I hid a craftily readapted Birthday card under his pillow and off I jetted to the UK on Friday the 13th to spend Valentine’s with one of my all-time bestie girlfriends eating Thai takeaway at my London kitchen table and talking nineteen to the dozen.

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The lovely husband maintains that women have a part of brain where they store up emotional debts and IOUs for later use (take note, George!). He might be right there, I certainly wasn’t going to forget about my outstanding romantic Valentine’s dinner date now, was I? Had he been in London with me, we’d no doubt have gone to my favourite fish restaurant, J. Sheekey (www.j-sheekey.co.uk) in Soho. Not only do I love their food to the point of craving it but this is where the lovely husband put a ring on my finger many years ago, so it has special meaning for us as well. Here in Baku, I chose the most elegant place I know, the gorgeously grand Four Seasons Hotel. Mmmmmh, who can resist the fabulous ambience and food at Zafferano or the chic sophistication of Bentley’s Whisky Bar where they do some pretty impressive bar snacks and extremely quaffable drinks too?! Well, since these two places within the hotel are high on the list of our preferred dining choices in Baku, we thought that for a change and on this special occasion, we’d try the Kaspia upstairs. We’d been there only once before, shortly after our arrival in Baku 18 months ago, and had eaten a rather disappointing prawn with an over inflated ego, masquerading as lobster, possibly the smallest I have ever seen, in fact. And this at a steep AZN40. Sorry, but at that price size matters!

Lobster at Kaspia 2014
Lobster at Kaspia 2014
Crystals on decorative panels
Crystals image on decorative glass panels

Now Kaspia is not a restaurant that visually particularly appeals to me. In contrast to the elegance of the rest of the hotel, there’s something cold about it, a bit of a glorified fishmonger’s vibe. It’s neither sleek, nor modern, nor trad, nor cosy and Neptune only knows what the crystal glass decoration in the dedicated lift and on the restaurant floor has to do with anything. We’d booked in the non smoking section which is the less attractive area but were then offered a gorgeous little alcove table in the smoking section, just for two, almost hidden behind some wooden panelling, and set right into the window with a spectacular view over Baku. The perfect romantic date table! Very promising!

Window alcove table at Kaspia
Romantic window alcove table at Kaspia
View from Kaspia
View from Kaspia

The bread came, fresh and lovely, some of it baked with a delicate hint of apple in the dough, some with a slightly fishy sea grass. The generous pats of butter were just the right consistency, well cooled but not hard, the table laid to perfection. You can usually bet that you’re on to a good thing when those little details are properly observed. Outside the lights of Baku were twinkling, inside in our little alcove there was discreet low lighting. The scene for a wonderful evening was set.

Bread with apple, bread with sea grass
Bread with apple, bread with sea grass

Our shared starter was assorted marinated and smoked fish with tuna, salmon, swordfish and scallops. It was a good looking platter with essentially great tasting fish. We were in our element! The accompanying crème of horseradish was very creamy and not at all horseradishy; I could just as well have had it on a scone with jam on top but that wasn’t a big deal. A bit stranger was the fact that we had to ask for lemon which then took some time coming. There’s a good reason why lemon is always served with fish, and especially smoked fish. It brings out the flavor, reduces the overly pungent fishiness and, being alkalinizing, also makes it more digestible.

Assorted marinated and smoked fish platter
Assorted marinated and smoked fish platter

As a main course I ordered one of my favourite fish dishes, sea bass with spinach. The lovely husband asked for a swordfish fillet with ratatouille and because we like our vegetables, we also ordered a side dish of roasted root vegetables.

We actually quite like talking to each other, the lovely husband and I, and it seems that there are always a million and one subjects on which we have opinions to trade. On this occasion, we were deep into the issue of profiteering by the local businesses following the recent devaluation of the Manat, the geographical borders of the Balkans, the geographical borders of Europe and the exact location of the Urals, and the point and purpose of the European Games. Sipping our most outstandingly delicious Tall Horse Sauvignon, there we were, in lively mid conversation, when suddenly the most intrusively loud live piano accompanied by bongo playing started up, you know the kind of thing, Dr. Zhivago and similar pling pling muzak. My heart sank. That was going to be the end of any civilized conversation, only shouting was going to be possible, and the atmosphere was instantly transformed to that of a hotel lift. Jollydee. Not. Ah, but there was hope, here was the waiter with our dinner!

Sea bass with spinach
Sea bass with spinach

Right, spinach in this case clearly meant four uncooked spinach leaves. Oh…. Kay.…. The two sea bass fillets swam in some sort of grape adorned sauce which, to my horror, turned out to be sickly sweet and reminded me of Duck a l’Orange, a dish I have always hated on a par with offal, snails and sweetmeats. I hastily removed the fish, dabbed the sauce off it and arranged it on a small side plate. The waiter moved forward, removed the plate with the sticky sauce without comment but did not think to offer me a larger plate for my food. Faux Pas No.1. Once again, we had to beg for some lemon for our fish. Faux Pas No.2. In fact, the fish, deprived of its horrible sauce, now tasted dry and overdone and had little flavour. I turned to the roasted root vegetables. Erm, yes…..I’m not sure when, unbeknownst to me, the green beans and courgettes accompanying some slightly underdone pumpkin became root vegetables? To give them some credibility, there were a couple of carrots. In any case, they were a bit greasy and by then I was done with my meal. The swordfish fillet with ratatouille was much more of a success. Let’s not start nitpicking and point out that the actual key ingredient of ratatouille is tomato and that invariably zucchini and aubergines are also involved, not to mention garlic and provencales herbs, and that the whole lot is normally stewed. Let’s just accept that a tasty combo of lightly fried finely chopped green and red peppers with black olives is allowed to impersonate this Mediterranean dish. It worked well with the swordfish which itself was excellent, so the lovely husband was happy with his food, even though he too wasn’t exactly blown away by the ‘root’ vegetables.

Sword fish fillet with ratatouille
Swordfish fillet with ratatouille

Again the waiter stepped forward, cleared the table, removing my little side plate with most of the fish left on it without comment and without asking whether there had been a problem with my meal (blatantly obvious, after all!) or whether I had enjoyed it. Faux Pas No.3 .We had a quick look at the dessert menu which we found quite underwhelming and limited in choice and decided to head downstairs to Zafferano to end the evening on a sweet note. First though, there was the not too small matter of the bill which came to a stonking AZN151 for a shared starter, two main courses, two small bottles of water and a bottle of superb wine at AZN47. Breathtaking but not in a good way.

Desserts at Kaspia
Desserts at Kaspia
What a  whopper!
What a whopper!

I shot out of Kaspia like a barracuda on steroids, down in the lift and then to the warm, beautiful, elegant safety of Zafferano where we were welcomed with genuine warmth, despite the fact that the restaurant was almost full to capacity, and not an eyelid was batted when we asked for a piece of cheesecake to share and two Americanos while everyone else there was still ordering dinner. The evening became magical again.

Cheesecake at Zafferano
Cheesecake at Zafferano (partial view)

Would I recommend Kaspia? Well that little window alcove table for two is something quite special and the wine, the bread, the starter and one of the main courses were very enjoyable too, there’s absolutely no question of that, though much of the food was not as described or prepared correctly. The service was pretty good in principle but just a little automated and lacking initiative, the ambience a little chilly, the ‘background’ music ghastly and intrusive, and chef possibly not quite on top of his game. As for value for money, let’s just not go there. Where Zafferano downstairs is a pretty, sparkly, inviting place with lovely food and clearly very popular, Kaspia is a bit of a mermaid’s graveyard.

STOP PRESS: I hear that a new chef from Copenhagen with impressive credentials is expected at Kaspia within the fortnight. This bodes very well for seafood lovers!