Opulent restaurant, homey food
Maizbon showcases Afghan cuisine
By Candy Sagon
Sunday, November 29, 2009
"Have you been to the restroom yet?" our waitress at Maizbon, the new Afghan restaurant in Alexandria, asks the women at our table.
Wow. That's an intriguing question. We look at each other, wondering: Do we look as if we need to go?
No, that's not what our waitress meant. She had been explaining Afghan traditions of hospitality, including the custom of pouring water from a pitcher into a bowl for guests to wash their hands at the table before eating.
In that spirit, the sinks in the women's bathroom were designed so that the water flows from a small bowl into a larger one. Resplendent in swirls of gold, orange and red, the sinks perch atop large black-and-gold painted urns. To add to the sense of tradition and glamour, the restroom's red ceiling is studded with the small bejeweled and mirrored tops of Afghan tobacco tins. (Don't worry, guys, you have a cool loo as well. The sinks are carved stone, a nod to Afghanistan's rugged terrain.)
Details such as those are typical of owner Waheed Afzali's pride in his native country. With most Americans knowing little of Afghanistan beyond the current war news, Afzali was determined to open a restaurant that celebrates Afghan culture, traditions and food. " 'Maizbon' means 'hospitality,' " he says. "I wanted a place that reflected that. I wanted to show that we are more than just kebabs."
The result is an opulent, colorful place where the decor almost distracts from the food. There are two life-size female mannequins in traditional Afghan dress; a male mannequin with the double-sided drum called a dhol; an intricate statue of a horse; a special area with traditional Afghan seating, on pillows on the floor; hanging lights made from tambourines; and a gold-and-black-striped wall sparkling with more of the mirrored tops from tobacco tins. Many of the items come from a late uncle who owned four restaurants in Kabul, Afzali says.
The food is equally eclectic. There's kala pawcha -- an unusual, slow-braised stew of beef tripe, tongue and lower leg served with chickpeas and barley -- and an Afghanized version of a burger and fries. The burger patty is a combo of ground beef and lamb; the fries are kickin': thin, spicy discs generously sprinkled with red and black pepper, plus salt. It's a pretty good deal at 10 bucks.
On all of our visits, we ate Afghan style, ordering lots of different dishes that we passed around and shared. The appetizer portions are generous and a bargain at $5 to $6. The first time, before we knew better, we ordered six of them plus salads for four people and were pretty much stuffed before the entrees had even arrived.
Among the most difficult dishes to share (because they were so good that I wanted them all to myself) were the bolanee-e-kachaloo, triangular fried pastries stuffed with spicy, cilantro-flecked mashed potatoes; and the pakoura-e-badenjon, crisp slices of fried eggplant with a spicy meat sauce plus seasoned yogurt.
The meat sauce also tops mantu, the ever-popular soft, steamed dumplings filled with ground beef and onion. Aushak is the equally good leek version. Both are homey and comforting.
Burtaa, a dish of zesty mashed eggplant mixed with a tomato sauce and garlicky yogurt, comes with strips of nan for scooping. I think of it as Afghan baba ghanoush, but spicier and served warm. We also loved the kadu, a sweet and tangy squash stew served with bread. The menu says it's made with pumpkins, but Afzali says he and his cooks usually use butternut squash because it holds its shape better and has a sweeter flavor.
The entrees include larger portions of some of the appetizers, such as mantu, aushak and kadu. Some entree dishes also come in smaller, side-dish portions: They include sabzi, a thick stew of herbs and spinach cooked with tender chunks of lamb, and kofta, fabulous little meatballs of ground lamb and beef served in a spiced tomato sauce.
On one visit, we asked our waiter to recommend dishes we wouldn't find at other Afghan restaurants. He immediately suggested the shorba and du piaza; of course, we ordered both. Shorba strikes me as the ultimate slow-cooker dish for a cold, rainy day: chunks of lamb plus onions, garlic, potatoes and carrots, simmered together and served over a plate-size piece of nan to soak up the juices. The du piaza is an equally hearty dish of lamb accompanied by crunchy pink pickled onions and yellow split peas, all served over bread. The first time we tried it, the split peas were undercooked and the lamb slightly overcooked; on a subsequent visit, however, both were fine.
And then there are the kebabs, which come with salad and a choice of white or brown rice. Don't miss the brown rice, which is really more like fried rice, lightly spiced and irresistible. If you can't decide, order half and half. Afzali marinates his kebabs for 24 to 48 hours for maximum flavor. The chicken kebab, orange-colored from saffron, is moist and tender; the salmon, which gets a dose of dill, was also cooked perfectly. But the lamb should have been pulled off the heat earlier, and too much salt marred the tender filet mignon.
As for the desserts, the firni -- Afghan custard made with milk and rose water and sprinkled with pistachios -- was pleasant, but the baklava was refrigerator-cold and tasted less than fresh.
Service at Maizbon, which opened in July, is well meaning and friendly but still a work in progress. Though two of our servers were skilled and charming, others were still undergoing training and unsure of the basics. When the restaurant is busy, the kitchen can get slow. The restaurant also isn't licensed yet to serve alcohol. ("It's a long process," our waiter said.)
Asked what, aside from the decor, makes his Afghan restaurant different from the others in the area, Afzali pulled out his trump card: Mom. "I cook the way my mom makes it at home," he said. "You come here, it's like you're coming to my home." All I can say is, his mom taught him well.
Inside scoop: Hookah starts at 9:30 p.m. in the front area, but thanks to an efficient ventilation system, the fumes can't be detected in the main dining space. About $15 for flavored tabaccos. Most popular? Blue mist.
Tom Sietsema wrote about Maizbon Afghan Grill for an August 2009 First Bite column.
Waheed Afzali has some definite ideas about what Afghan food should be. "What I do here," says the 44-year-old owner of Maizbon Afghan Grill, "I learn from my mother" as a child growing up in Kabul. At his festive new restaurant, which set sail in July, he's teaching a kitchen crew of six men what he thinks is the best way to make a kebab and whip up nan.
Beef and chicken skewers shouldn't taste the same, the chef insists. So the former are marinated with onion juice and the latter get a hit of dried coriander in their seasoning. Eggs and milk might not be the traditional way to make Afghan flatbread, but Afzali thinks the addition of both ingredients makes for a fluffier nan. Afghan fries aren't a nod to the American way but a reminder of the snack food he enjoyed back home. Spicy and hot, the restaurant's fries are served in a cone (and quick to disappear).
The early verdict on the meats: The kebabs reveal a nice flavor but could benefit from less time on the grill. Noodle dishes -- including the leek-filled, yogurt-draped, beef-enriched aushak -- are what you hope them to be, which is plenty comforting.
Food won't be the first thing to catch your eye here, though. The decor will. Carved into four distinct spaces, Maizbon is the only restaurant of its kind in the area to accessorize using mannequins dressed in traditional Afghan costumes and, on one wall in the main dining room, what look like compact mirrors but turn out to be shiny cans used for chewing tobacco, all from Afghanistan.
The engaging service, supplied in part by several members of the owner's family, fulfills the promise of the restaurant's name, which is Farsi for "hospitality."
Don't be surprised when anyone refers to Afzali as if he were Italian. In addition to Maizbon, the restaurateur owns the nearby Valentino's New York Style Pizzeria, where, he says, "90 percent of my customers know me as Armando."
(Aug. 5, 2009)