Probably the best ethnic surprise to hit Washington in the last decade was Afghan cooking, and its pleasure has not diminished. Bamiyan, the first of those Afghan restaurants, continues to serve a delicious collection of dishes, reasonably priced, in a small dining room decorated with folksy tablecloths and artifacts. Sometimes the service copes insufficiently with the crowds, but it is generally attentive and hospitable.
Most important, though, the food is delightful. Either as appetizer or main course you should try aushak, homemade noodles stuffed with leeks or scallions, topped with yogurt, tomato-meat sauce and mint. It is one of the world's great ethnic dishes, and it is also available as a soup, or with the noodles fried. The very good meat-filled fried dumplings are reminiscent of India's samosas and are accompanied by a tangy chutney. Main dishes are largely kebabs (the chicken was somewhat dry the last time I tried it), usually carefully cooked, agreeably seasoned, generously portioned and served with an interesting dark rice. Also try the lamb palow, an extraordinary blend of sweet and savory tastes: dark rice tossed with glazed julienned carrots and raisins and buttery soft chunks of stewed lamb. And though the portions are generous, you shouldn't miss the yogurt-and-meat-topped vegetable side dishes, particularly the pumpkin.
In all, Bamiyan serves food that is fragrant and exotic, but easy for even the most timid diner to enjoy. 3320 M St. NW. 338-1896. D $6.35-$12.50. D daily. Closed Sun. AE, MC. V. Res sugg. Full bar.