808 King St., Alexandria. 683-9008.
Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, for dinner 5 to 11 p.m. daily. MC, V.
Prices: Most dinner appetizers about $2, entrees $5 to $11. Complete dinner with wine, tax and tip about $17 to $22 per person.
BEFORE HOME COOKS were saddled with global consciousness, coffee-table cookbooks and a passion to serve exotic things, they were a pretty conservative lot. Grandma had a limited repertoire of dishes at which she was expert, and when you visited for the holidays you knew in advance what was going to be on the table. Anticipating the familiar was half the joy. And so it is with Washington's Afghan restaurants, where the menus are so limited and so interchangeable you can order your favorite dishes by heart -- just like at Grandma's house.
Hakim, a new Afghan place in Alexandria that shares ownership with the nearby Bamiyan, doesn't break the pattern. Aside from a couple of new entrees that turn out to be minor variations on familiar staples, Hakim plays the traditional Afghan restaurant theme note for note. And why not? Afghan restaurants generally do what they do so well -- and at such a reasonable price -- that a copycat is welcome, even if it's just three blocks from the original. (Hakim's prices, by the way, are identical to the neighboring Bamiyan's.)
This is a beautiful restaurant. Downstairs is a long, narrow dining room flanked by comfortable teal blue banquettes. On the velvety, bright blue walls, latticed Middle Eastern arches create the impression that one is looking through a window at a sunny sky. It's lovely, but the far more spacious upstairs room is the real knockout, with bright Afghan rugs and artifacts dramatically spotlighted.
The traditional fried appetizers are done reasonably well here. Sambosay goshti, stuffed pastries similar to Indian samosas, are nicely puffy and lightly fried. Bulaunee, the flat turnovers generally stuffed with ground beef, are well prepared, too; for a change of pace, order the vegetarian variant called bulaunee catchalu, filled with spicy potatoes and dipped in yogurt at the table. We found pakowray baunjaun, an appetizer of saut,eed eggplant, nicely firm on one visit, mushy on another.
Aushak, available as an appetizer or entree, is an outstanding version, with big, hearty pasta dumplings, chunky, well- flavored ground beef and plenty of mint mixed with the yogurt topping. The soup version, called aush, was excellent, too. Mantu, listed next to the aushak among the entrees, is described as steamed dumplings with a spiced vegetable filling, but what's served seems to be filled with the same ground beef mixture that tops the aushak -- in fact, the only difference between the two dishes is apparently the shape of the dumplings.
By this time it's become a truism that kebabs are the centerpiece of an Afghan menu and that the lamb kebabs are the best of the best. Hakim gives no reason to change that appraisal: Its lamb kebabs are, in a word, wonderful -- beautifully marinated and skillfully charbroiled to retain flavor and juiciness. The chicken version, although nicely flavored, tends to be a bit dry. There's also an unusual kebab called goshti kamar, consisting of three good-size, skewered lamb chops -- good-quality meat, but without the flavor of the cubed lamb kebab.
In some ways, quabili palow is the most impressive and appealing of Afghan dishes. Similar to Indian biryani, it's a generous mound of saffron rice mixed with long-cooked lamb chunks, raisins, carrot strips and almonds. The Hakim version is outstanding, with plenty of tender meat, a nice balance between raisins and nuts for a lovely interplay of textures, and overtones of what taste like cinnamon and cardamom. The only flaw is that the carrots are heavily candied and there are too many of them, which made the dish too sweet for our taste.
What remain among the entrees are several excellent stews: sabsi chalow, a mild, silky lamb-and-spinach blend served with a wedge of lime for added zip; korme murgh, with moist, tender chicken in a lovely, fresh-tasting sauce of tomatoes, mushrooms and onions; and baunjaun chalow, lamb in a good tomato-eggplant sauce.
Man should not live by meat alone, if he knows what's good for him, and so a word is in order about complex carbohydrates. The brown and white rice, as in other Afghan restaurants, is superb -- tender but firm, without a trace of clumpiness, and intriguingly flavored with cumin and cardamom. The excellent Afghan bread, called nan, seems to suffer ups and downs -- one night crust and fresh, another night disappointingly soft.
If you've eaten in Afghan places before, you'll know not to expect much from the salads. But cooked vegetables are another story: Don't miss the delightful pumpkin (even more enjoyable without the optional meat topping), available either as a side dish or entree.
Desserts are the standard Afghan threesome, but they're very well done. Baklava is admirably crackly crusted, neither overhoneyed nor overoiled, and with lots of walnuts; firnee, the cornstarch pudding, is silky textured and, thankfully, has only a trace of rosewater; and gosh-e-feel, the fried pastry disc, is outstanding -- properly crisp and light, and liberally dusted with cardamom.
With Bamiyan and Hakim in the same neighborhood, is this the beginning of a trend? Will Old Town have kebabs on every corner? We can only hope.