Hours: 5:30 to 11 p.m., Monday through Saturday.
Price Range: Entrees $5.95 to $8.75; appetizers and deserts $1.50; side dishes $1.25 to $2.
Atmosphere: Interesting and comfortable.
Reservations: Yes. Comfortable bar/lounge downstairs for waiting.
Credit Cards: Visa, Mastercard.
Special Facilities: Telephone books for children. Dining is upstairs, and wheelchair access is impossible. Parking difficult.
If a restaurant that has seen better days can be said to have gone downhill, has a restaurant that is better ever gone uphill? Georgetown's Bamiyan was good when we visited it two years ago, and now it's super.
When an old Washingtonian recommended this Afghan restaurant as an inexpensive place to get an unusual meal, we hesitated -- a little afraid, I think, that we would get something like mountain-grass stew or pickled camel's feet. Like most Americans, we had no acquaintance with the cuisine of Afghanistan. Well, it's a little like the kind of Indian food served at restaurants such as Apana (into whose class it is advancing), but perhaps more like Middle Eastern food, with lots of rice, yogurt and lamb, and with the best baklava I've tasted in Washington -- just the right proportion of honey and nuts between layers of pastry neither too dry nor too soggy.
What's more, Bamiyan likes children ("better than some adults"), and our kids gobbled up the food on their plates faster than you can say M. Den Morad -- the name of the talented and energetic 19-year-old chef who has been in charge of the kitchen for the last year and a half. (If you ate here more than a year ago and felt lukewarm about the food, try it again; meanwhile, the old chef is running the kitchen at Bamiyan's new branch in Old Town, Alexandria.)
The three appetizers on the menu are easy to share, cheap enough and quite tasty. Belaunee ($1.50) are turnovers stuffed with scallions, herbs and ground beef, with yogurt on the side.
Sambosay goshi ($1.45) are deep-fried pastries stuffed with ground beef chickpeas and parsley ($1.45).
And aushak ($1.50), which you must try as an appetizer if you don't order them as an entree, are Afghanistan's answer to ravioli. They are stuffed with chopped scallions and topped with yogurt, meat sauce and mint.
With great strength of character we resisted the two lamb kabobs on the menu ($7 and $8.75) as too predictable. (Later the manager told us the kabobs were first-rate, so we'll try them another time.) I ordered quabili palow ($6.95), nicely seasoned chunks of moist chicken under a mound of saffron rice. The girls shunned it at first -- one because it had carrot strips on top, the other because the rice contained raisins -- but once they saw how good the other dishes were they tried it, too, and asked for more. While they shared bites of my dish, I stabbed at my husband's aushak ($5.95), hoping to get my fill before he wiped it out.
The daughter who hates carrots loves spinach, so she got sabsi chalow ($6.90), chunks of lamb in a spinach and onion puree, with rice. In her eyes, the spinach and lamb were a side dish for the rice and perfectly acceptable that way. Who were we to argue? We ordered this dish despite an old review posted in the window that says vegetable dishes are poorly done here, especially spinach. tOur pleasure over the success of the dish, with the spinach cooked just right and the lamb not overcooked, was further testament to the transformation that has obviously taken place in the kitchen.
The kabob-e-murgh, or chicken kabob ($7.95), ordered by our other girl couldn't have been more surprising: I can count on one finger the number of times I've eaten chicken kabobs that weren't scrawny pieces of dried-out white meat. These were large, juicy morsels, cooked to perfection, a bit steep, perhaps, at $7.95, but more than enough for one child.
Salad made with iceberg lettuce, and Afghan bread (a bit dry, by nature) are served with the entrees. We also ordered a side dish of sauteed pumpkin (kadu, $2) topped with the yogurt and meat sauce. It was unexpectedly delicious, but sweet enough that two or three bites per person sufficed. So order this one to share.
Save room for the baklava, a bargain for $1.50 (we only hope it stays this good), but order one serving of gosh-o-feel to share ($1.50). This giant elephant's ear pastry is covered with so much sugar our teeth ached, but a couple of bites are irresistable.
The big surprise at Bamiyan was the food. How often do you return to a good restaurant to find that it has improved? Bamiyan is also prettier than it used to be. We had remembered this second-story restaurant as a little shabby and drab, a condition we had come to expect in places serving inexpensive ethnic foods. Now the walls have been painted, the new tablecloths echo the rich reds of the Oriental-carpets, exotic music plays quietly in the background and the walls bear enough interesting artifacts to remind the children they are doing something different.
Our meal for four cost $54.85 (wine, tax and tip included), which raises Bamiyan out if the bargain basement but leaves it in the category of restaurants where you can have a memorable meal at a reasonable price, and not be sorry you brought the kids along.