Hours: For lunch, Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; for dinner, Monday through Sunday, 5:30 to 10 p.m.
Atmosphere: Mildly exotic.
Price range: Entrees, $6.45 to $10.95.
Credit cards: Mastercard and Visa.
Special facilities: Accessible to the physically handicapped; booster seats for small children.
On one of those cold, snowy nights, cabin fever ran high. We wanted out for an evening.
With snow tires on the car, we made it to downtown Bethesda, but many local restaurants had closed early. Kabul West, a new Afghan restaurant, was on the verge of closing when we arrived. After a brief chat with the chef, the maitre d'-manager-waiter agreed to let our well-chilled family of four come in for shelter and a meal.
It was an attractive enough shelter. Kabul West is housed in what was once a dingy-looking, cafeteria-style restaurant. The new owners have brought some treasures from their homeland. Beautifully woven Afghan rugs in vivid colors hung on the walls or billowed from the ceiling and delicately crafted copper urns sat on brick partitions. The lighting was soft and dark. Muzak filled the air.
Although the lovely setting had us feeling perfectly comfortable, we were somewhat concerned about the food. With no other customers there and the restaurant about to close, how fresh and ready could the food and chef be?
We asked our waiter to recommend the dishes he thought his kitchen could handle best that night. He mentioned that the shish kebab dishes (lamb, beef and chicken variations) would take longer to prepare than others. We took the hint and tried the stews.
As most entrees were in the $7 to $9 range, we chose sparely from the appetizers. The offerings were dazzling: aushak ($2), a scallion-filled dumpling topped with a yogurt and meat sauce; sambosa-e-goushti ($1.85), pastries filled with ground beef and chick peas; pakowray badenjan ($2), eggplant topped with tomato-meat sauce; bulanee kachalu ($2), a turnover stuffed with potatoes and ground beef; and bulanee ($1.75), a turnover filled with scallions.
We opted to split the bulanee four ways. Our waiter brought the long flat pastry to the table cut into four equal parts. A little bowl of yogurt came with it. We were hungry and almost anything would have tasted good, but this was more than just good: it was superb. The seasoning was delicate and light, the pastry crisp and fresh. Yogurt dabbed on top of the pastry was the perfect counterpoint in taste and texture. We resisted the temptation to order another round. It was a good move, because the rest of our dinner was as good as the bulanee.
After the appetizer, our waiter brought wonderful homemade Afghan bread and crisp salads tossed with a delightful, light yogurt dressing. The salad greens were a nice mix of romaine and bibb lettuces.
For our main courses we tried one beef, two lamb and one vegetarian dish. Quabili pallow ($7.95) was a bed of spiced brown rice, raisins and carrots topped with chunks of lamb seasoned lightly with curry and cooked until tender. The seasonings and combination of ingredients were just enough to be different, but not so highly spiced to repel a delicate palate, or a child who's worried about trying something different.
Kurma chalow ($8) was the spiciest of the dishes we tried. It was a beef stew, with chunks of beef cooked with tomatoes, onions and green pepper. The stew, served in a small casserole to keep it hot, was ladled out onto a dinner plate covered with white rice.
We also tried sabsi chalow ($7.95), stewed lamb served in a spinach sauce. Again, the lamb was cooked in mild spices and just until tender. It was a fine dish but not one that spinach-hating children are apt to enjoy.
The vegetarian dish was chalow sabsi ($6.45), the spinach sauce without the lamb. Although our son, a vegetarian, had wanted to try chalow kadu ($6.85), a pumpkin, yogurt and brown rice dish, our waiter said it wasn't available that night.
For dessert, there was firnee ($1.65), a cornstarch pudding with almonds and pistachios, and baklava ($1.85), the super-sweet Middle-Eastern pastry made of filo dough soaked in honey and filled with walnuts. We found the firnee an acquired taste, but the baklava exceptional. We had to order a second one to take care of the family sweet tooth.
Our tab at Kabul West, $39.01 including tax, was more than we usually spend for a family dinner, but the food and setting were so special, they piqued our interest in that distant land and its people, and put Kabul West on our list of restaurants we're anxious to visit again.