A new Afghan restaurant is always welcome for its repertory of good, moderately priced food. The meat kebabs, stuffed dumplings, stews, and vegetarian dishes easily satisfy a variety of dining tastes.
The family-run Panjshir, although newly opened, has already achieved an excellence to match the best of the older, more established Afghan restaurants in the Washington area.
A small storefront has been turned into an attractive, intimate dining room. There is a richness and sparkle to the decor from the mirrored walls and modern, glass chandeliers, to the ornate gold shelves mounted on blue velvet behind the bar.
The soft-spoken waiters, obviously proud of the family effort, were pleased when we praised the rich, creamy yogurt and dense, chewy afghan bread, both of which are homemade.
The appetizers consist of various stuffed dumplings and turnovers -- all delicious. For example, the mantoo is filled with delicately seasoned ground beef, onions, and chickpeas. The plump dumplings are covered with yogurt and a sweet, tomato-meat sauce.
In the spirit of international pragmatism, Chinese eggroll wrappers are used for some of the other dumplings like the deep-fried sambosay goshti. The four small, crisp triangles contain a variation on the seasoned beef filling in the mantoo and are served with a hot green pepper sauce for dippings.
Aushak is a meatless dumpling stuffed with chopped scallions. The flavor of the scallions can be a little strong, but the soothing yogurt and meat sauce on top help these ravioli-like dumplings slide down with ease.
Rounding out the appertizer list are two other tasty meat pies -- bulaunee kachalu and bulaunee gandana -- served with a yogurt dip.
Two of the appetizers -- aushak and mantoo -- can be ordered in larger portions as an entree. So, too, can vegetable side orders be expanded into vegetarian entrees.
The afghan pumpkin dishes have always been a favorite of mine, and at Panjshir they are superb, either as a side dish with the creamy, seasoned yogurt and a meat sauce, or without the meat as a vegetarian entree. The pumpkin is not as heavy as sweet potato, but similarly rich and flavorful.
Also outstanding and generous in size are the shish kebabs. The combination kebab, served on two heavy-duty skewers, is truly an impressive line-up of chicken, beef, and lamb. Not only are there chunks of lamb, but each skewer has a whole lamb chop, too.
There are lamb stews like the quabili palow, or the quorma palow, with fall-apart-tender pieces of lamb in a savory, reddish-brown gravy. Both stews are complimented by an aromatic rice pilaf.
Besides the pumpkin, there are two other vegetarian entrees, sauteed eggplant and pureed spinach with onions and garlic. They were fine, but not distinctive.
The same could be said of the soups, such as the aush, a filling noodle soup with mixed vegetables, topped with sour cream and ground beef, or the international soup, thick with spinach and mixed vegetables and topped with only the meat sauce. Given the high quality and generous portions of the other items on the menu, the soups could be skipped.
After sopping up the last of the sauces or yogurt with the wonderfully fresh afghan bread, finish with a cup or two of fragrant, cardamom tea. Coffee or Sanka is also available.
We barely had room for dessert, but still might have enjoyed sharing the elephant's ear pastry, gosh-e-feel, had it not tasted stale. The light, flaky and only slightly sweet baklava was a better choice, but not great. The other two possibilities were two soothing homemade puddings in plain and chocolate flavors. But desserts aside, the real attraction of this family operation is the delicious food, moderate prices, and genteel service. It's a combination you'll find hard to resist.