Inspired kebabs, uninspired setting
Makeover could spur wider following
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, March 4, 2012
For a long minute, I sit in the car, staring at the restaurant, which has been suggested by an acquaintance of a colleague. I wonder whether the hour-long drive in rush-hour traffic will be worth whatever awaits me behind the doors of Eastern Kabob & Sweet.
The storefront, set in a tiny strip mall in Germantown, looks lonely. As best I can tell, the only diners are an older couple seated in the center of a room that's as brightly illuminated as any Hollywood premiere. I get out of the car and peer through the windows for signs of beer or wine, a restaurant critic's buoy when the chow is grim. No dice. I'll have to settle for a less potent pacifier as I check out what my source's source calls "the best kebabs."
So many tips from strangers never pan out. Eastern Kabob & Sweet is probably another wash, I figure. But it's late, and I'm hungry. At the very least, I can tell my colleague that I checked out her suggestion.
Three hours later, I'm opening my refrigerator for another scoop of daal maharani, creamy yellow lentils that pulse with ginger, cumin and onion and that don't make it to lunch the next day because I end up finishing them for breakfast. Eastern Kabob & Sweet may not be the most attractive or comfortable place to explore the cooking of Pakistan, but I'm cool with motel art and plastic utensils as long as the signature food is genuine.
The kebabs, it turns out, are exceptional. You hear them before you see them, sizzling and spitting on their platters as loudly as any fajitas. A length of coarse ground beef is cut open to reveal grated onion, cilantro and crushed red pepper in its juicy interior; a thick rope of ground chicken is propelled to greatness with jalapeño, paprika and flavorful thigh meat. Both kebabs are piled high with sliced onions - some crisp and sharp, others soft and sweet - and are followed with a bowl
of minted yogurt for taming the heat. There's fragrant jasmine rice, too, flecked with cumin seeds that further distance the side dish from Uncle Ben's. Plate-size naan are decent. Same-size roti, made with whole-wheat flour, are superior.
A glass of sweet mango lassi does the food just fine.
The man responsible for these seductive plates is head chef Mohammad Hanif, who hails from Lahore, the cultural heart of Pakistan's Punjab region. His boss, owner Mohammad Nadeem, is a 2007 graduate of the University of Maryland with a finance degree.
Eastern Kabob is six years old. Six months ago, it relocated from a few doors away into these larger digs. "My sales were getting big," explains Nadeem of the change of storefronts.
You may wish to inch into dinner, in which case you should order an appetizer. Pani puri is the most interactive of the bunch. Diners are instructed (well, if they ask) to poke holes in the sheer little wheat balls, light as Christmas ornaments, and
fill their hollows with a pinch of boiled potato, a spiced chickpea or three, and a shot of what looks like pond water but is in reality a puree of strained mint, jalapeño, cilantro and tamarind. Pop the orb in your mouth, and wait for the fireworks to start as the delicate shell releases a stream of sweet-hot water. Tamer, but no less delicious, are fried potato patties blanketed with yogurt and tamarind sauce. The tug of war between hot and not is a very pleasant sensation. Craggy vegetarian pakora emerge from the deep-fryer crisp and hot, their fluffy yellow centers veined with fenugreek and cumin: Pakistani hush puppies!
Tidiness, I'm sorry to report, is not one of Eastern Kabob's hallmarks. The doors of the refrigerated coolers reveal smudges, and the lingering evidence of meals past on some tables steers you to a clean one to await your order. Looking around the room one night, at a clutch of quiet strangers waiting for their food, a friend said, "You don't know whether this is a restaurant or a bus station."
Between the flimsy utensils and the food that sometimes comes out of sequence, Eastern Kabob is a perfect candidate for Restaurant Makeover: Germantown Edition.
You can venture beyond the kebabs and find lots to like among the main courses. Tender cubes of chicken cloaked in velvety tomato gravy make a respectable butter chicken. If you're a goat fan like me, don't miss goat karahi, handfuls of soft fresh meat in a rough paste of tomato, ginger and more. Palak paneer, spinach dotted with unpleasantly firm cubes of cottage cheese,
is typical of what you might find in a routine Indian restaurant, and the black lentils, daal makhani, smack of Mexican-style black beans. They aren't bad, just different.
Shiny silver chafing dishes lined up against the wall at night are prompts to visit Eastern Kabob earlier in the day, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., when the kitchen serves a buffet of seven or so dishes for $8 weekdays and $9 Saturday and Sunday.
The second half of the restaurant's name is explained by the refrigerated case in the rear of Eastern Kabob, home to half a dozen confections, including two shades of syrup-drenched gulab jamun, nutty halwa and milk-based burfi, dense as fudge and white as snow. The desserts are agreeable and expectedly sweet.
That lone couple I spotted on my first foray to Eastern Kabob were joined later in the evening by others, mostly families coming in to pick up carryout orders. Hang around the restaurant enough, and you'll see that a lot of food is picked up for takeout or catering by people who appear to have grown up on Pakistani cooking.
It wouldn't take much effort on the part of the restaurant to gain a wider following. My advice to Nadeem would be to break out the Windex, dim the lights, invest in silverware and background music, and hire an extra body to take orders.
But, please, don't mess with the kebabs.