Afghan Kebab House II
Most New York food writers, myself included, wrote about eating Middle Eastern or Central Asian food in the aftermath of 9/11. This is not another one of those pieces. This is simply a review of a good little restaurant on the Upper East Side?a find in the midst of one of the densest restaurant regions in Manhattan, which one might have been reluctant to try for any number of reasons. For example: the question, What the heck is Afghan food?
It's a creole. By that I don't mean that it's a cuisine made up for American consumption, based on a mix of traditions and local taste, like what you get in most Tibetan (or, for that matter, Chinese) restaurants. Rather, Afghan is a creole more like West Indian food, which springs from an historical mix of conquering, conquered, resettled and passing-through peoples, simmered over centuries. Chemical bonding of disparate flavors might only occur under conditions unique to trade-route hubs. To express the characters of its many neighbors while at the same time establishing one all its own is the trick of Afghan food, if it's cooked well.
That's the case at Afghan Kebab House II. I have not visited the restaurant's older brother, which is in the absolute densest restaurant row in New York, on 9th Ave. near 51st St. Up in luxury high-rise land, House II's room is small and its decor borders on outlandish (a small stuccoed dome is the first thing one sees upon entering). Competition is stiff (the same strip of 2nd Ave. includes two popular Turkish restaurants, Sultan and Uskudar) and the service (usually by the proprietor) can be slow. But if nothing else endears, AKH2's love of the grill, deliciously obvious at first taste, eclipses the negatives. But first, appetizers.
They're not spectacular, so skippable in a pinch. But a comprehensive Afghan-food experience must at least include some yogurt dipping sauce, which comes with the fried turnovers and boiled dumplings that AKH2 serves as starters (another variation dresses the Afghan Salad, which is otherwise unremarkable). It's thin and very tangy, with sourness mitigated by dill and mint. That the appetizers themselves weren't as refined suggests that multiple courses weren't part of the way the cuisine developed. The yogurt dip hints at a duality of Arab and Indian influences, but the wrappers of the dumplings and turnovers were a little greasy, their interiors too subtle. Bolanee Kadu, a mashed pumpkin turnover, was the best of the fried starters.
The way to go might be to commence with the Aushak topped with ground beef. There's a flat noodle at the bottom of this appetizer, but it arrives looking like a simple plate of seasoned ground meat and yogurt sauce. It clearly establishes the use of yogurt as a coolant (as in Indian food) and its role as part of a mellow pastiche of soft herb flavors (which is more Arab). Aushak with beef and yogurt goes especially well with the provided Afghan bread, which is long and flat (but not so flat that it lacks doughyness), and difficult to enjoy otherwise because the kebabs come with rice.
It's tempting (as it was a dinner) to from this point proceed directly to the grilled meats, but there was a surprise in my Aush worth mentioning. Aush is a noodle soup?I'd ordered it wondering about similarities to those of Tibet or Mongolia. Instead, the Aush brought a flush of impossibly deep-seeded recognition. The noodles are mushy, the stock from root vegetables and chicken. The seasoning that overwhelms all others is dill. Aush resembles my Yiddish great-grandma's chicken soup! The effect diminished upon further tasting, but the point was well taken. When considering influences that trickled into Afghanistan via its neighbors, don't neglect Mother Russia.
AKH2's Lamb Kofta Kebab conveys Middle Eastern peoples' affection for open-flame cooking with a gusto too few local kebab joints manage. The lamb is ground beyond the point where it'd only disperse grated spices uniformly and be easy to chew. The effect of such a labor-intensive kofta grind is that the meat is aerated, so that it optimally absorbs scent and flavor from wood-charcoal smoke. The deployment of fresh herbs was also audacious, featuring so much mint and slow-cooked onion that, if not for the rich smokiness, it'd suggest a luxuriously homey Eastern meatloaf. The coup de grace is the restaurant's pair of homemade condiment sauces. There's a cilantro-based green and a vinegary red on every table. They're relatives of salsa verde and Buffalo-wing sauce?though distant, long-lost relatives that don't attend family reunions. Both were unique enough with the lamb kofta kebab to distinguish Afghan grill technique from those of the Middle East.
What we took for the condiments' probable Indian heritage was called into question by our Half Chicken Tandoori. It's not a traditional tandoori in that the meat is finished on the grill after baking, and the relative shallowness of flavor in the dark meat made me suspect it hadn't been marinated as long. The chicken's breast, though, had a fragrant delicacy that captivated and confused. Instead of the heady, intertwining multiplicity of the Indian spice rack, here was something subtle, grabbing attention with its ambient fragility. Our whole party sampled the chicken, and the cook half of the couple who brought me to AKH2 identified the likely source of the floral mystery: the ancient culinary tradition of Persia. It's too easy to forget, due to current politics and the lack of Persian restaurant experience, that the most shadowy influence on modern Afghanistan?Iran?has its roots in one of recorded history's mere handful of great empires, which stretched all the way from Greece to the Indus. On the plate, the Persian note is quiet and lovely. (I owe a double-sized "thank you" to my friends for their assistance.)
For sides we had spinach and eggplant, both plates slow-cooked with onions, tomatoes and peppers. All hints of bitterness had been cooked out or camouflaged, yet neither dish was busy, either. Again the mode seemed to be Arab home cooking plus an Indian sense of leisured plenty. I think the vegetables might have benefited from some input from the flame or the chili pepper, but as support for the meat they were passably unobtrusive. The long-grain rice that comes with the kebabs is billed as brown basmati, but it's neither hulled nor unpolished. Yellowish, rather, non-sticky and light in texture, tasting sweet and somewhat nutty, the rice was more likely a large-grain white that had been rinsed, soaked, parboiled and baked?again in the Persian tradition?to achieve such fluffiness. It blended superbly with the robust meats.
Spicy Fish Kebab we ordered just to see what the kitchen would come up with (Afghanistan is landlocked, though it does have major rivers and lakes), and our challenge was definitely met. Fresh cod had been marinated and spice-rubbed in accordance with the inexorable logic of the grill, which encourages strong flavors and a bold disposition. Again, somehow the overriding mode was mellowness, but as with the lamb, this was a calm that resulted from reconciling a potentially riotous array of ingredients. If Afghanistan itself can house diverse elements with even a fraction as much smooth, spicy serenity, it's safe to say that something truly amazing will have transpired.
A dessert of Afghan Firnee was a sublimely weightless milk pudding. Its preparation didn't involve rice starch or raisins, as puddings tend to in India. The only flavorings were a garnish of crushed pistachios and a wisp of rosewater, glimmery on the tongue like moonlight on water. AKH2's baklava, meanwhile, is less about pastry or even honey than cake and nuts?as our Firnee offered one last breeze of refinement from the Persian plateau, the strudel-esque baklava pointed back north, toward the former-Soviet republics and beyond.
Afghan Kebab House II is inexpensive. Soups and appetizers top off at $4, and most kebabs fall in the $8-$11 range. The costliest item on the menu is Shrimp Kebab, which is $15.
Most recent articles on food from this region have ended with a plea for your sympathetic patronage. I'll just say that Afghan Kebab House II could indeed use your business?just like all the other fine and unsung restaurants in this tumultuous world.
Afghan Kebab House II, 1345 2nd Ave. (betw. 70th & 71st Sts.), 517-2776.
The last time I'd dined uptown, all I'd eaten was high-grade chocolate. That reminds me that I have a couple of things to add to the choco-roundup I did a few weeks ago.
First, I received a very friendly response to that piece from Jacques Bergier of Leonidas, the boutique that I found to offer the greatest value for your chocolate dollar. Mr. Bergier asked me to pass along news of the opening of the Belgian company's new chocolate cafe, Manon Cafe, on lower Broadway. It follows in the tradition of New York's first Manon Cafe (actually called Leonidas Manon Cafe), which is also in the financial district, on Hanover Square. That means great coffee, espressos and lattes, in an environment that would put Starbucks to shame if it had any?plus unbelievably rich chocolates, made with fresh cream. The price on the latter remains a very competitive $24 per pound.
Second, for the reader who complained to me (in a message to my personal e-mail, no less) that I wrote too much about chocolates and not enough about chocolate, I want to lend recognition to another chocolate bar. The traditional kind, this time. Fairway supermarket buys bars of Belgian Callebaut from Lake Champlain Chocolates of Burlington, VT, and markets them under the store's own brand name. The milk chocolate is no big deal, but the dark variety is a knockout. One of the Fairway bars (find them by the cash registers) is dark chocolate with peppermint crunchies. As I see it, this Green Mountain bar is ready to face your chalky-ass 62 percent Scharffen Berger in choco-battle anytime, choco-dude.
Manon Cafe, 120 B'way (Cedar St.), 766-6100, www.leonidas-chocolate.com.; open until 6 p.m., weekdays only.
Fairway, 2127 B'way (74th St.), 595-1888.
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