Taste of Afghanistan

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So many restaurants that excel in pleasing my palate fail when it comes to service. What bothers me more than bad service are the annoyances that many restaurants consider to be good service. It starts with, “I’m going to be taking care of you this evening,” then graduates to, “How is everything?” or “Is there anything else I can get for you?” every five minutes, and peaks at, “Are you still working on that?” If I have to intercept the removal of my plate more than once, the service is more than annoying, it’s offensive.

Ariana Afghan Kebab House has been on my list of restaurants to try for quite a while because of its never-before-sampled exotic cuisine and convenient Hell’s Kitchen location a few blocks away from my apartment. Despite these enticing qualities, it took me about four years to go. As soon as I walked in with my boyfriend and friend, I asked myself, “What took me so long?” An affable guy greeted us warmly and showed us to our table. “How are you guys tonight?” he asked with polite nonchalance. This was my first impression of Rafi, the owner. He operates a one-man show, running the place and serving all nine tables with casual efficiency. No other waiters were in sight, nor were they necessary. The atmosphere is intimate and cozy. Posters of Afghani landscapes and portraits of smiling men and pensive women in colorful, traditional garb blend with the tapestries and carpets under the glass table tops. Blue lights hang over each table and lively music add to the friendly, welcoming cultural comfort that Rafi has conceived. 

Drinks first: my boyfriend had Dough ($3), a delicious, refreshing yogurt cocktail seasoned with mint and cucumber. My friend ordered iced tea ($3). “Good choice. It’s the best iced tea in the world,” Rafi said. 

He wasn’t exaggerating. The tea puts other bland brews to shame—mildly sweet and spicy, flavored with fresh lime juice and cardamom. I asked him what was in it. 

“Oh, a lot of things,” he said vaguely. “It’s the best. You’ll love it.” I had a glass of Chablis ($6), but wished I’d ordered the iced tea. 

Rafi used no condescending scripted lines or cloying attitude to win us over. He chatted us up in-between courses as if he had invited us over to his house for a dinner party. We talked about the famous photograph on the wall, the National Geographic Afghani girl with intense yellow-green eyes looking askance at the world, framed within her red headscarf. 

“I went out with her,” Rafi said. “But she was too old for me.” An ironic sense of humor—another quality that sets him apart from restaurant industry robots. Rafi knew a lot of the customers (Afghani and “foreigners”), and if he didn’t know them, he at least got their names and treated them as honored guests.

He recommended eating the Spinach Samusa ($5 fried dumplings) with the spicy green condiment on the table. It’s just as good dipped in the yogurt sauce served on the side. I was delighted with the pumpkin appetizers—try the Kadoo Buranee ($5 small/$10 large), pumpkin slices, or the Kadoo Bolanee ($3), pumpkin turnovers are great whether it’s Thanksgiving or not. 

Moderately priced entrees ($12-$18) are served with brown basmati rice, salad and Afghan bread. The ambrosial Pumpkin Curry ($12) has large chunks of spiced pumpkin mixed with yogurt and cilantro. If you’re a lamb lover, the Lamb Kofta Kebab ($12) is tasty with a perfect blend of mild spices. I had the Kabuli Palow with Chicken Kebab ($14) and a side order of spinach ($5), and still had enough room left for silky sweet Firnee pudding ($4) with almonds and pistachios. If you like Baklava, you’ll love Ariana’s take on
it—Beghalawa ($5). 

Throughout the meal, I kept glancing at Miss National Geographic. Her expression exudes a pre-Taliban innocence that fills the entire restaurant. Although some of the posters read, “Free Afghanistan,” I almost forgot I was eating the food of a war-torn country. As we lingered after dessert, my boyfriend told Rafi that it was my birthday. “You’re going dancing?” He asked. We didn’t have plans. No matter—he turned up the music and showed us how the Afghanis jive. All the other customers had left, so we had a little party. A family showed up while we were still dancing. Not surprisingly Rafi knew them. I stalled for a few minutes and the man who just walked in said, “Go ahead. Keep dancing!” So we did—for a little while longer. As we were on our way out, Rafi said, “Next time, I’ll play you a song on my harmonium. We’ll have fun.” Now that’s good service. 

Ariana Afghan Kebab House

787 9th Ave. (betw. 52nd & 53rd Sts.)


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