2004 18th St. NW 667-5673 Hours: 6 to 11 seven nights a week. Prices: Main dishes $5.95 to $10.95. Cash only.
The name says it all, or at least explains what you should focus on at Afghan Kabob, the pint-sized eatery that opened in August on the fringes of Adams-Morgan's burgeoning multinational restaurant row.
Afghan Kabob is the kind of place where neither the food nor the setting alone is particularly compelling. Rather, it is the combination of both that makes this restaurant work.
Consider the dining room, a dozen tables in a squarish, wood-paneled space. The small operation packs in a lot of nice touches -- crisp white covers grace the tables, set with pewter service plates and candles, while the front window is trimmed with tiny white lights and curtains. The rest of the decor is a personal and warming collection of colorful rugs, Middle Eastern knickknacks and framed photographs of scenes from everyday life in Afghanistan.
Charming and modestly romantic, this restaurant also is casual enough that the owner's daughter might be observed drawing at a table in the rear of the restaurant. And when I ordered carryout recently, the contents included food packed in the restaurant's glass dishes, which the host pleasantly asked that I return at my convenience. You start off liking the place even before you've had a morsel to eat.
But first, your welcome is likely to include a few stipulations: Afghan Kabob doesn't accept credit cards, and doesn't yet have a liquor license, though the hostess might steer you to a grocery store across the street for wine and beer, to be opened in the restaurant. (Unless your preference is for the most common of labels, my advice is to bring your own wine.)
The menu is brief. There are no appetizers at Afghan Kabob, although a plain lettuce salad, accompanied by a mild cucumber yogurt dressing and cubes of warm Afghan bread, precedes dinner.
There are fewer than a dozen entrees, half of which feature hunks of lamb, chicken, and beef threaded on skewers. The best of these have been the full-flavored morsels of lamb and the moist, meaty chicken -- a quarter of a rosy-pink bird -- faintly smoky from its grilling. By contrast the beef kebab, teamed with tomatoes, peppers and onion, was chewy, less flavorful and only slightly crusty from its charbroiling. Another kebab of beef -- mouthfuls of ground meat seasoned with only a whisper of garlic and onion -- was improved by a dipping sauce spiked with chilies.
One of my favorite dishes is the qabili pilau, a generous plate of rice combined with accents of lamb, shredded carrot, raisins and almonds. A bit shy on the seasonings, it was nonetheless satisfying fare.
Two vegetarian dishes -- one a bland plate of thinly sliced, fried eggplant and a cover of tomatoes, the other a rice pilaf flanked by side dishes of boiled spinach and cauliflower, topped with a light tomato sauce -- round out the main dishes. The latter is best eaten in combination with its vegetable accompaniments, for the saltiness of the spinach balances the blandness of the cauliflower. And the flavor of both are bolstered by the rice, which comes to the table sweetly perfumed with the likes of cloves and nutmeg.
In contrast to the hefty main dishes, desserts here are light; among the best are a Frisbee-size, wafer-thin disc of fried pastry, called goash-e-feel, faintly sweet and dusted with pistachios, and firni, a smooth, ivory-colored custard perfumed with cardamom and sprinkled with a cover of ground nuts.
Although Afghan Kabob might not be worth crossing mountains for, it's a nice place to know about when you find yourself in the neighborhood, with a big appetite and a smaller wallet.
Tom Sietsema is on the staff of The Washington Post Food section.