Monday, October 22, 2007
Can you say fall-off-the-bone in Afghan?
How's this for a story: local favorite Afghan restaurant in San Francisco named "The Helmand" located on the edge of North Beach and Chinatown closes down. Its manager moves to Arizona to set up shop because he's told there isn't a single Afghan restaurant there. I'm glad he did. I would return any day to savor his amazing lamb shank, but more on that later.
We drove by Kabab Palace -- Cuisine from Afghanistan a few times thanks to its prominent location. Curious, we walked in, only to find out it had been three days since it opened. Armed with a huge appetite and even larger party, we ordered a good sampling. The top photo features two appetizers that can be ordered as entrees: aushak, a ravioli filled with leeks and scallions, served on a sauce of yogurt mint and garlic, topped with ground beef and mint; and mantwo, homemade pastry shell filled with onion and beef, served on yogurt and topped with carrots, yellow split-pea and beef sauce. Interesting factoid: the word, "mantwo," used for these ethereal dumpling-like things is the same as "mandoo," used for Korean dumplings, and "manti," tiny dumplings served with yogurt in Turkish cuisine.
Both appetizers were mild and the flavored yogurt sauce complemented the dumplings nicely, but I liked the aushak better, only because I thought the ground beef inside the mantwo was a bit dense. It may well be the garlic-infused yogurt sauce on the aushak that did me in. It helped that the bright white yogurt tinged with sprinkles of green from the mint and red from the meat sauce looked vibrant and inviting.
Let me jump to the best dish, hands-down: qabelee, a pilaf-type rice baked with chunks of lamb shanks, raisins and glazed carrots. This type of rice is called "pallow," and is described as basmati rice boiled then drained of water, seasoned with vegetable oil, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin seeds and black pepper caramelized and then baked. That's a pretty elaborate preparation of the rice. But the star of the dish was the lamb shank, in all its fall-off-the-bone glory. Lamb isn't usually the most popular meat, but my companions were devouring it. The lamb was buried inside a mountain of the rice topped with raisins that added a tinge of sweetness to the rice and lamb combination. It was like discovering a treasure tucked inside that was waiting for its shining moment. I can't think of a better way to eat lamb shanks.
Sabzi challow was another good lamb and rice dish but slightly different. It was lamb loin and the challow rice is made in a similar way to pallow rice but with less seasonings. I liked the spinach that came with the lamb, but some grains of rice of the challow were dried out and hurt when I bit into them.
My third favorite dish was chapendaz, beef marinated, grilled and served on a sauce of grilled tomato, hot peppers, onion and cumin seeds served with lentils and spinach rice. I liked that the beef was cooked medium as requested, although I'm a medium rare kind of person (family-style dining has its pitfalls). We also had mourgh challow, a chicken dish infused with spices and sauteed with yogurt, cilantro and curry, which was similar to chicken tikka masala but less spicy. Koufta challow featured rice with beef meatballs sauteed with sun-dried tomato, hot peppers and green peas in a tomato sauce. The meatball dish looked a lot better than it tasted. The meatballs were too densely packed and felt dry.
What pulled the flavors together was the condiments trio that included "chatnis," the Afghan word for "chutneys." Cilantro chatni was my favorite, which tasted almost identical to the Indian variety, bu the other red chatni was made out of chili peppers and there was a yogurt and dill sauce that added a refreshing touch to the meat dishes that could feel heavy at times.
All of these delectable dishes were washed down with the perfect drink -- green tea with cardamom. Service was great and I would definitely recommend this place. It also has a lunch buffet I have yet to try but I'm sure it'll be as well-prepared with care and attention to detail as the dinner dishes.
Cuisine from Afghanistan
710 W. Elliot Rd., Suite 108
Tempe, AZ 85283