Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. for lunch Monday through Friday, 5 to 10 p.m. for dinner Monday through Thursday, 5 to 10:30 p.m. for dinner Friday and Saturday and 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday.
Credit Cards: MasterCard, Visa.
Reservations: Suggested on weekends.
Prices: $6.65 to $11.95.
Fifty years ago, if you wanted Afghan food you had to go to Afghanistan. Five years ago, you could get it in Georgetown, but it was hard to park. Now you can eat your aushak right in Bethesda, at Kabul West, which is a delightful turn of events because Afghan cooking is wonderfully appealing and usually a bargain to boot. And Kabul West does it very well. In fact, the food is generally on a par with what's served in the better Afghan restaurants downtown.
This is a pretty place, too, in a modest, low-key way. A big corner room, with hanging plants and woolen Afghan tapestries in bright geometric patterns. Soft sunlight by day, candles by night. Nice.
You can start with aushak as an appetizer. These pasta dumplings, filled with scallion bits and topped with ground beef and yogurt, are well executed, although the traditional mint in the topping is a bit sparse and the yogurt isn't up to the homemade velvet we've had elsewhere. Even better is the aush soup, in which the yogurt is blended with the rest of the liquid.
Bulanee, fried appetizer turnovers, are one of the few sub-par dishes we've had here, greasy and pervaded with the flavor of cooking oil. But the sambosa, fried pastries filled with a spicy paste of beef and chickpeas, are excellent and served with a piquant, hot-tart sauce with fresh coriander.
Lamb is to Afghanistan what beef is to Texas. Sample it in the marvelous kebab-e-gousfand, the big, meticulously trimmed lamb cubes marinated, then charcoal-grilled on skewers with onion, tomato and green pepper. Nicely charred outside, perfectly pinkish inside. And with a marriage of meat and fresh garlic flavors that is made in heaven. This dish can revive your faith in what can be done with a skewer, an open flame and a good piece of meat. And that includes chicken, for the kebab-e-murgh is very nearly as succulent and flavorful as the lamb.
Lamb or beef long simmered with vegetables and spices is another Afghan specialty. In sabsi chalow, the vegetable is spinach and, although by usual standards it's overcooked and oversoft, in this case the lengthy simmering allows the spinach to absorb meat and spice flavors. The result is most pleasant--smooth, subtle, velvety. (Without the meat, though, the spinach side order, called sabsi, is just plain mush.)
Beyond the spinach, they do marvelous things with vegetables at Kabul West. Cauliflower, for example, is cooked in an herbed tomato sauce with plenty of fresh ginger for a delightful mingling of flavors and aromas. It's a vegetable side order as gulpi, or, as gulpi chalow, an excellent entree served with beef cubes. Sauteed eggplant, chalow badenjan, is a delightful vegetarian entree, topped with yogurt and a gentle tomato sauce. For something a little sweeter, try the sauteed pumpkin (which tastes like acorn squash), called chalow kadu. Or have the pumpkin as a side order topped with a little meat sauce.
One of the most endearing Afghan dishes is quabili pallow, a mixture of lamb cubes, aromatic rice, raisins and slivered carrots. If the proportion of ingredients isn't carefully adjusted, it can end up tasting like a candied dessert. No problem at Kabul West. There's a perfect balance between sweet, spice and lamb flavors, there's an irresistible cinnamon fragrance to the rice, and the portion is generous.
The homemade Afghan bread that accompanies the entrees is particularly good here--yeasty, crisp-bottomed and dotted with pungent black sesame seeds.
The three Afghan desserts are all worthwhile. Goush-e-feel, a pizza-size disc of fried dough topped with sugar and pistachio nuts, is a gem--crackly, free of excess oil and nicely browned around the edges. Baklava is exemplary, dense yet not oily, and with some crispness to the phyllo pastry. Even firnee, a rosewater-flavored cornstarch pudding, is better than most.
Suburban Maryland needed Kabul West. May it prosper.