Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, Friday and Saturday until 11. Prices: Most dinner entrees $8 to $12. Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa.
Afghan food is one of those ethnic cuisines that doesn't take a lot of getting used to. There's a straightforward appeal to those beautiful broiled kababs, fried appetizers and flavorful stews that strikes a familiar chord right away.
To make things better, Afghan restaurants generally have reasonable prices. Kabul West in Bethesda is a good example.
The dining room is pretty and inviting, yet without fanciness or pretention. By day, bright daylight accents a profusion of plants. After dark, there's candlelight at the tables and spotlighting on beautiful Afghan tapestries.
If there's an off note in the environment here, it is the service. The place seems perpetually understaffed, so that the service on a busy night (and that seems like most nights) can be brusque: Just getting a water glass refilled can be a major undertaking.
The food, for the most part, is top-notch, on a par with any of the Afghan restaurants downtown. In fact, the fried appetizers lately have been superlative, perhaps the best of their kind in town.
Sambosa-e-goushti, similar to the Indian samosa, are beautifully fried pastries, delicately crisp and a bit chewy, with a wonderfully flavored chickpea filling. And bulanee, simple turnovers filled with scallions, are irresistibly puffy.
The aush soup, however, was below par on our last visit: not enough yogurt and mint, so that it tasted like a faintly exotic minestrone, dominated by noodles and hamburger. Good, but it could be a lot better.
Kababs, of course, are a major feature, and they're as fine as ever, particularly the lamb and chicken. The portions are big, the meats are impeccably trimmed, the marination adds succulence and flavor without robbing the lamb and chicken of their taste, and the charcoal grilling is timed so as not to dry things out.
Beyond the kababs, aim for the other lamb dishes. This is slow, falling-off-the-bone style cooking, with delicious results. In sabsi chalow, the lamb, along with garlic and onion, lends its flavor to long-simmered spinach. And in quabili pallow the lamb is served with brown rice, raisins and carrot strips. This dish can sometimes be unpleasantly sweet, but at Kabul West its flavors are beautifully balanced.
Or have shish leek, a generous platter of marinated and grilled beef chunks, nicely tender and succulent, with crisp vegetables and brown rice.
Don't overlook the excellent vegetables, available either as entrees (take note, vegetarians) or as side dishes. Saute'ed pumpkin is naturally sweet, and topped with yogurt for a delightful mingling of flavors. Just as good is cauliflower stew, cooked in a tomato sauce with what tastes like ginger.
An Afghan meal wouldn't be complete without goush-e-feel, a pizza-shaped dessert of crisp fried dough topped with sugar, cardamom and pistachios. One order, with some aromatic Afghan tea, ought to satisfy two people.