Monday, September 15, 2008

Restaurant Review: Kabul

This review originally appeared in Czech translation in the 06/09/08 edition of Lidové Noviny.

When a dish shows up in your dreams, you know it must really be something special.

That's what happened after one of my recent trips to restaurant Kabul: just as I was drifting off to sleep, my belly still full to bursting from an enormous dinner, the memory of the Afghan-style kebab I'd devoured only a few hours before wafted into my mind. I recalled the ground beef patty's mildly charred, almost crispy exterior; its juicy deep pink center; the aromatic dollops of chutney – one tangy and sweet, the other bold and spicy – that so perfectly complemented the smoky grilled meat.
A little pool of saliva began to collect in my mouth. My stomach growled. Against all odds, I was hungry.

Since it opened on Karolíny Světlé a few years ago, Kabul and its fantastic kebabs have been a well-kept secret known only to a handful of devoted regulars. Afghan cuisine isn't exactly Italian or Chinese food, after all, and it can be a tough sell. When I informed a group of out-of-town visitors that we were going to be having dinner at a place called Kabul, they didn't look especially thrilled.

But by the time our table was loaded with fat kebabs, homemade bread, and colorful vegetable side dishes, they'd become believers – as has everyone else I've brought to the restaurant. It's a pleasant little family joint with unique and delicious food at reasonable prices. What's not to like about that?

Kabul is nice to visit both in the wintertime, when the tiny dining room lined with Afghan carpets becomes a cozy cold-weather hideaway, and in the summer, when the restaurant expands to include an outdoor courtyard. With its picturesque wrought-iron well and walls lined head to foot with wisteria, the garden has some enviable features.

Still, the atmosphere outside could use some improvement. The restaurant/ club/ drag queen cabaret next door likes to blast cheesy pop music over their neighbors' demure Afghan soundtrack. They also have menu-wielding employees standing at the shared garden entrance, doing their best to snatch away Kabul's potential customers. There's not too much owner Hasib Saleh can do about those things, but he might consider upgrading the plastic tables and chairs to something a little less crappy – they cheapen the image of his restaurant more than it deserves.

Of course, a certain crustiness is part of what makes restaurants like Kabul so endearing. The puffy, pleather-bound menus, quirky restrooms, and occasional chipped plate show a lack of pretentiousness that I find refreshing. As long as it doesn't go too far (cockroaches, dirty toilets, cockroaches on the dirty toilets), a little bit of the lived-in feeling is fine with me.

It's not all about the kebabs, either (though I do feel compelled to add that aside from the beef version, Kabul also has chicken and mutton kebabs that are very good as well, all for around 200 CZK). Ashak (150 CZK) is a tasty dish made up of pierogi-like dumplings filled with leek and topped by white yoghurt, dried mint, and ground beef with lentils. The al dente stickler in me would have preferred the dumplings to be a little less cooked, but for all I know, that could be the authentic way to serve them.

Vegetarians can fill up at Kabul, too, as can those who are dead against trying Afghan food; the menu also lists spaghetti, goulash, and pizza, although the Western-style additions hardly seem necessary. Vegetarian sides include bamya (140 CZK), or okra with onions and tomatoes; a garlicky steamed spinach dish called sabzih (70 CZK); and dal (60 CZK), a mildly spicy yellow lentil puree that's perfect for scooping up with Kabul's homemade flat bread (40 CZK). I'd also recommend the excellent kadu (140 CZK), a fried pumpkin dish topped with white yoghurt.

Celebratory Afghan dinners are typically served in the form of a spread, or dastarkhan, where the dining table is laden with various meats, vegetable dishes, breads, rices, nuts, and fruit. It's a good idea to mimic this tradition on a trip to Kabul with a small group so you get to try lots of different dishes. Or you might like to take your food to go and have a little dastarkhan of your own at home (or at your office – they apparently cater parties of up to 500 people).

I do find Kabul's food to be a little on the greasy side for my liking; it's not something I'd be able to eat every day. But if you try it and become a fan, you might want to take advantage of their new 85-CZK lunch special. It may not be the environment for a high-power business lunch, but your meal is certain to be cheap, filling, and tasty.

You'll probably be happy with the service, too. Mr. Saleh is usually on hand to oversee the restaurant and often serves customers himself with a big, friendly smile. No wonder so many people have adopted Kabul as one of their favorites. Just make sure that when you stop by, you don't get tricked into going to the Tingl Tangl drag queen show next door. Your dinner still might enter your dreams, but it'll probably be in a whole different kind of way.

Karolíny Světlé 14
Praha 1
Tel: 224 235 452
Open Mon – Sun 10.00 - 23.00

1 comment:

Rory said...

Will defo try this place out, I love Afghani food especially th bread. Yum. Rory