Location, location, location
Afghanistan is far better known these days for war and politics than for aromatic rice pilafs and ravioli-like spinach dumplings, but its cuisine is well worth discovering. The country’s food is related to its history, of course. Its mélange of flavors derives, in part, from its position along the ancient Silk Road, the trade route across Asia from China to Rome. The restaurant’s very name is a subtle reminder of Afghanistan’s decades of rebellion and civil war. (The Taliban infamously demolished two statues of Buddha at Bamiyan in 2001.) A more overt reference to the current U.S. military action hangs on the wall, in the form of a few small rugs depicting automatic weapons and American B-52s.
These, however, are overshadowed by larger, more abstract rugs that transform the unprepossessing space. A few low tables offer the option of dining while seated on the floor. These traditional-style tables weren’t occupied during our visit, but I imagine that’s where you’d sit if you ordered one of the alluring multi-course feasts for large groups.
A vegetarian version of the feast is available, too. One of the pleasant surprises of Bamiyan’s menu was the wide range of vegetarian options. I thought Afghan food would be heavy on the grilled meat, but Bamiyan had some great vegetable dishes. The side dish of a thick slice of yogurt-topped, meltingly tender eggplant, still in its smoky, slightly crisp skin, was fantastic. If you like eggplant, don’t miss it. If you think you don’t like eggplant, try a bite, because it might convert you.
The menu at Bamiyan is large and flexible, with several entrées also available in appetizer portions—a nice way to try unfamiliar dishes. We opted for the pakawra, big ovals of battered, fried potato that bore a clear resemblance to Indian pakoras. They came with a nicely sour, minty chutney that had a slowly building heat. A lighter choice was a crunchy salad with tangy lemon dressing and a dusting of dried mint, which is a signature Afghan flavor. As a friend of mine said, Afghan cooks really know what to do with a dried mint leaf.
Another item that showed off mint was dauge, a refreshing, savory yogurt drink with cucumber. This was one of several interesting beverage options. Not only were there a sweet, cardamom-spiced green tea and an iced Afghan tea, but there also was a reasonably priced wine list with more choices than you might expect.
Such attention to detail, as well as eagerness to please, characterized the service. Our server was shy at first, but she warmed up over the course of the evening, seeming genuinely hospitable and pleased to help uninitiated diners. When a woman at a neighboring table asked about a spinach side dish she hadn’t ordered, the server brought out a small plate of it for her to try. When we asked about the difference between two different dumpling dishes, the server unhesitatingly recommended the ashak, delicate spinach-filled dumplings topped with a sauce of spiced ground beef and yellow split peas, plus creamy yogurt and mint. It’s a traditional Afghan dish, but it tasted deliciously like a spinach lasagna that had migrated a couple of thousand miles east.
Kabeli palow, a basmati rice pilaf with cumin, sweet raisins and big shreds of carrots, was more reminiscent of Persian flavors. As with all of Bamiyan’s entrees, the portion was large. It came with tender, meaty lamb in a tomato-based sauce and a generous spoonful of slightly too-sweet spiced pumpkin puree. At first, my mom thought she would be taking most of the dinner home, but by the end of the meal (and with me reaching over for occasional bites of rice) there was just a spoonful or two left. The kebab we tried, chicken shammi, was very different but equally good. The lightly charred, spiced ground chicken breast was redolent of onions and juicier than I’ve ever known grilled white-meat chicken to be.
Our favorite dessert was fernee, a light milk pudding with cardamom and pistachios. We also liked the rice pudding scented with rosewater, though its slightly perfumey flavor might be off-putting for some. Small diamond-shaped sweets called sharpara were good for nibbling with the aromatic green tea. Though they were called “milk chocolate” on the menu, they weren’t actually chocolate at all. Instead, they were a bit like a chalkier divinity, dense with walnuts and pistachios.
Other sweets and candies, as well as intriguing Afghan ingredients and snacks, are available in a small retail section of the restaurant, which only adds to the many reasons to seek out Bamiyan. Its location may be out of the way, but its cooking brings a taste of the Silk Road to the suburbs.