Saturday, March 31, 2007

Afghan Dreams

"Take us to Kabul!" we chorused. "We're in your hands."

On rather short notice, we joined Sharon, Desi, Leslie and Scott for dinner tonight on the "Silk Road." The Silk Road is a new Afghan restaurant located off Belmont Ridge Road, just north of Route 7. (Tel: 571-333-4930) Located in a nondescript shopping mall, it would be easy to miss. But miss it, and you'd be making a big mistake.

As Leslie and Scott sat down to the table, filling the final two chairs for dinner, the waiter, a young Afghani boy of about 20, timidly asked us for our drink orders. Desi and I both ordered the Glenmorangie single malt, Sharon a Chardonnay, and Becky nothing for the moment. As I watched, the young waiter took advice from the bartender on how to pour and serve the liquor. I realized that this was probably his first job as a waiter in his parents' restaurant.

I must say, I was immediately impressed with this restaurant. The selection of whisky alone was impressive. From our table, I spied a counter boasting 12 year MacAllan, 12 year Glenlivet, Glenmorangie, Glenfiddich, and Jameson. Our drink order had the bartender opening this brand new bottle of Glenmorangie, and he poured what would have been a double measure in most other restaurants.

As we surveyed the menu, completely unfamiliar with Afghani cuisine and feeling adventurous, we began to inquire to our young waiter about letting the "house" pick our meal for us.

He appeared a little confused, timid, and unsure how to handle this rowdy bunch, but his mentor, the bartender and owner of the establishment, rushed over to the table.

Wally introduced himself to us. "Actually, my name is Wahli (he pronounced it wa-LEE), but since school, my nickname has been Wally."

"I can give you a traditional Afghan meal. All the dishes."

"Perfect!" we sang out. "That's just what we want. Yes, just bring us food!"

When you're in a restaurant like this, you want to be treated to the chef's best. And I think this is what restaurants truly enjoy most--people eager to enjoy the best they have to offer. The wait-staff were stepping over each other to ensure our water glasses were full, and the food just kept coming!

First, the combination appetizer: Aushak - ravioli stuffed with Chinese scallions, chives and spices, topped with seasoned yogurt, ground beef, and dusted with dry mint. Mantoo - steamed dumplings, stuffed with seasoned ground beef, onions and topped with seasoned yogurt and sauce and dusted with cumin. Boulany - wheat crust stuffed with seasoned potatoes, spring onions, cilantro and pan fried. And Sambosa - spiced ground beef with mixed veggies, wrapped in dough and pan fried.

After the appetizer, a round of vegetable side dishes arrived: Badenjan Borani - baked eggplant topped with seasoned yogurt. Sabzi - cooked spinach topped with vegetable sauce. Zardak - slow cooked carrots with split peas. Kaadue - Sautéed butternut squash, seasoned in yogurt and tomato sauce. And Kachalou - Oven baked slices of potatoes simmered in a tomato and turmeric sauce.

We ate and ate, spoons competing to get the last morsels off the enormous serving platters before us. Baskets of flatbread continued to arrive, and we sopped up most of the sauces remaining on the platters.

Next, the entreé. A mixed kebab grill of lamb, chicken and beef, with a special set of lightly breaded and fried lamb chops. Served with sides of lentils, potatoes, Samaroq Palaw - mushrooms and tender breast of chicken with tomato and sour cream, and Kabuli Palaw - baked rice with sautéed carrots, raisins, and almonds. There was also a serving of Qurma Palaw - a traditional Afghan lamb stew.

As Becky glanced at her watch, she gasped. It was already ten 'til eight. We were supposed to be home by eight! I'd better run off and call the babysitter.

But the courses kept coming. Next it was dessert: a beautiful plate of homemade Baklava, Firnee - an Afghan style pudding with almonds, cardamom and pistachios, a kind of Afghan funnel cake soaked in honey until it was crispy and sticky, Goshee Feel - thin crusted pastry dusted with powdered sugar, ground pistachios and cardamom. (Did you ever know that cardamom is the secret spice ingredient in Fruity Pebbles? Try it next time, and you'll agree.)

Along with the dessert, a fine Eiswein arrived. Wally even pronounced it with the proper German accent, "Ice-Vine." Very impressive.

Just as I'm starting to panic about the time, the gentlemen from the kitchen bring out steaming cups of Afghani tea. The tea was heavenly, and deeply spiced with still more cardamom. It was delicious. The whole night was delicious!

We asked for the check, and much to our surprise, the bill was not really out of line for what we received--a wonderful two and a half hour culinary tour of a country that most Americans still can't find on a map.

Our young novice waiter smiled broadly at us as we left, white teeth gleeming brightly in his dark face. I'm sure our group just made their payroll for the week.

"It's been our honor to serve you," he beamed.

No, sir. The honor was all ours. Five stars!

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