Open for lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, for dinner from 5:30 to 11:30 p.m. daily. AE, MC, V. Reservations not necessary. Street parking only. Prices: Dinner entrees from $6.50 to $8.50. Typical dinner, with house wine, tax and tip, about $16 per person. Special complete dinners for two available at $25.
If you're confused about the new Bamiyan in Virginia, who can blame you? Months ago came the welcome news that Georgetown's Bamiyan, the original Afghan restaurant in Washington, would open an outpost in Alexandria. But before you could say buraunee baunjaun, the management changed the new Bamiyan into the European-style Vagabond (no relation to Bethesda's Le Vagabond). Thus was the newly-born prince transformed into a frog, with the merest flick of therestaurant-naming wand. Then, presto, back into the Bamiyan again in June.
At this writing it's still the Bamiyan, and hooray for that. The food so far is excellent, as good as at the Georgetown location; the prices are virtually the same, which means very reasonable; and, best of all, the setting is strikingly handsome, with a soft beauty that completely eclipses the original Bamiyan. So if you've not yet gotten around to trying Afghan cuisine (which will seem somewhat familiar if you know Indian and Middle Eastern food), this may be just the time and place. But do it before still another magical change turns the beautiful new Bamiyan into something else.
This is a spacious place, occupying a renovated three-story building in the heart of Old Town. The basement has been transformed into a soft, seductive cocktail lounge, with artfully plastered walls and Scandinavian-style couches arranged for easy conversation. The ground floor, too, is all beige and cream and teak, with widely spaced tables, and, at the far end, a sandstone reproduction of the third-century Buddha found near the city of Bamiyan in Afghanistan. But the best of all is the upper floor, a dining room of uncommon beauty that combines the best of old and new, of Afghan and Western decor, where spot-lighting dramatizes scarlet prayer rugs and Afghan musical instruments hung on rough white plaster. Now the bad news. On our last visit, we were told that business didn't yet justify opening the upstairs room; maybe by the time you read this the situation will have changed.
To experience the widest variety of foods on a first visit, order as many things as you can as appetizers or side-dishes, rather than as entrees. Notice, for example, that aushak, a stuffed dumpling with meat sauce, comes as an appetizer, a soup (called aush) and a main course. And that the three vegetables offered here--eggplant, pumpkin and spinach--come as vegetable entrees or as side dishes topped with meat sauce (at less than a third the price). Concentrate particularly on the lamb, something of a national meat in Afghanistan; it's tender, moist, flavorful and carefully trimmed. Notice the care and respect lavished on the rice: the long grains are firm and separate, and in some dishes they're lightly permeated with fragrant spices.
Don't pass up the appetizers. Sambosay goshti, puffy stuffed pastries, are similar to Indian samosa. Look for bulaunee, flat turnovers filled with coarsely ground beef, scallions and spices, served with a mint- pepper-yogurt sauce on the side. And pakowray baunjaun, sliced eggplant, cooked beautifully and topped with a tomato-meat sauce. And aushak (a miniature portion of the entree), a kind of Afghan ravioli, stuffed with leeks or scallions and topped with a sauce that combines the flavors of meat, tomato, yogurt and mint.
If aushak is Afghanistan's answer to ravioli (or is ravioli Italy's answer to aushak?), then aush soup is the delicious Afghan equivalent of minestrone, with tomatoes, beans, peas, noodles and ground beef, and more of that delightful yogurt-mint mingling.
Tired of all those tough little balls of dry meat that pass for kebabs at so many restaurants? Experience the lamb or chicken kebabs turned out by the Bamiyan's Afghan pros, and recall what these dishes are supposed to be. The trimming of the meat is painstaking, the marination lends succulence, the grilling is quick and hot (the lamb is beautifully pink at the center), and the portions are more than generous. Notice the bed of aromatic rice, fragrant with cumin and coriander.
Quabili palow is a delightful, mild combination of tender lamb chunks buried in a mound of saffron rice, raisins and carrot strips. The lamb and the sugary raisins combine in an unusual and delicious counterpoint of flavors and textures. With this dish, by the way, the Alexandria Bamiyan may have the edge over the one in Georgetown, where the proportion of raisins has been so high as to make the dish almost candied.
Spinach is an odd creature at the Bamiyan. In sabsi chalow, a mild, softly-flavored entree where the spinach is used as a "pot vegetable" with lamb and onion, its almost liquid texture seems perfectly appropriate--in fact, over-cooking here becomes a virtue, allowing the spinach to soak up the meat flavors and giving the dish a beguiling smoothness. But served alone as a vegetable side order, the baby-food spinach loses all its appeal. With food as with people, the company you keep can make all the difference.
To us, the least exciting of the entrees is korma chalow, chunks of beef with vegetables in a tomato-based sauce over rice. But it's no hardship to pass up beef when the lamb is this good.
Aside from the spinach, the vegetable side dishes, served with a yogurt-meat sauce, are excellent: nicely saut ,eed eggplant, and, even better, "pumpkin" (probably acorn squash) that's firm, sweet and beautifully prepared.
If we had to choose from among the three desserts, the winner would be the fried elephant-ear pastry sprinkled with sugar, cardamom and crushed pistachios. It's an immense, crackly disc, big enough for two. The other choices are worth a try, too. Baklava, made on the premises, is of the dark-moist-sweet variety, but not over-icky. The cornstarch pudding has a pleasant flavor, and (thankfully) only a faint undertone of rosewater.
If quality and grace and value for the customer's dollar were the determinants of success in the restaurant world, the new Bamiyan would be enjoying a land-office business, just like the one in Georgetown. That it's not yet doing so may mean that King Street has fewer adventuresome palates than M Street, or simply that the word hasn't yet gotten around. Whatever the cause of the Virginia doldrums, we hope they clear up soon.