As I sit near a bubbling fountain that runs down the middle of Mazadar, a calm Middle Eastern eatery in Fairfax run by Afghan brothers Ghulam and Mahboob Zahory, a dark thought crosses my mind: We have it so easy here. I mean, I’m sipping a light-bodied Kings Ridge pinot noir and noticing how its bright, fruit-forward flavors interlock with those of the kadu chalow, a butternut-squash-and-rice entree with a honeyed personality.
The dish is a taste of Afghanistan, the wine a quotidian indulgence from Oregon's Willamette Valley. Such decadence could get you killed in the owners' native land, a nation still searching for stability after more than a decade of war. Taliban extremists have been targeting restaurants, especially those catering to expats looking for liquid relief after a day of trying to piece a country back together.
Between the attacks and the State Department's ongoing warnings about travel in Afghanistan, it's clear most Americans won't be experiencing Afghan cuisine in its own setting anytime soon. So I'm heartened that some of the country's refugees — whether they fled the current war or a conflict that preceded it — are opening U.S. restaurants dedicated to the country's sweet, rugged cuisine. It strikes me as important, maybe essential, that such restaurants take root here, a sign that Afghan culture will not surrender to extremism. It will be nurtured in this foreign land, a forceful rejoinder to fundamentalists who believe Americans bring only destruction to the world.
The Zahory brothers, who fled Kabul in 1981 during the Soviet intervention, launched Mazadar in 2009 after earning associate degrees in hotel and restaurant management and toiling in the hospitality industry for decades. Like many immigrants before them, the siblings hedged their bets with their restaurant: They didn’t focus exclusively on Afghan cooking but borrowed food from across the Middle East.
It’s a safe play, but Mazadar’s strengths are its Afghan dishes, served in a sleek, slightly modernist dining room customized with curvy banquettes and breezy seaside colors that recall the Mediterranean more than Central Asia. Start with the bolanee kachaloo, a stuffed flatbread somewhat similar to paratha from northern India, one of many regions to influence Afghan cooking. At Mazadar, the bolanee is packed with potatoes, spring onions and cilantro, then pan-fried to a crisp, chewy consistency. When dipped in green chutney, a jalapeno-laced vinegar sauce, this friendly wallflower of a flatbread becomes the motormouthed life of the party.
Younger brother Mahboob Zahory serves as head chef, and his kitchen prepares almost everything in-house, down to the maust, a thin-but-tangy yogurt with a pleasant pinch of garlic in the background. The kitchen has a way with dough-based dishes: Its mantu dumplings are supple ground-beef pockets festooned with meat sauce, yogurt and olive oil; the chicken sambosa looks like a beer-bloated empanada and conceals perhaps the most delicately spiced filling I’ve ever tasted; the surfboard-shaped naan combines the chewiness of traditional Indian flatbread with the crackly skin of a fine baguette.
As it often does in pork-averse cultures, lamb plays a central role at Mazadar, sometimes in surprising form. The kitchen offers a consomme, a nontraditional bowl built from braised lamb broth. The consomme, however, remains an unclarified liquid littered with lamb detritus, a deeply savory soup that reaches its full potential only with an application of salt and pepper at the table. Same goes for the Mazadar chopan kebabs, a trio of rosy, fork-tender lamb chops in serious need of seasoning and grill flavor. The lamb shows best in the qabili palow in which the luxuriant (if sometimes poorly trimmed) hunks of meat are buried under carrots, raisins and fragrant long-grain rice.
The kebab menu wanders beyond lamb, however, embracing proteins rare among the skewer set. You’ll find glistening chunks of rib-eye, which sadly suffer from the same lack of seasoning as their lamb chop counterparts. Stick with the onion-drenched lengths of beef kubideh or the marinated chicken, these juicy chunks of breast meat offset by their sharp, blackened edges, all crusty and acrid.
Veg-heads can dine well at Mazadar, at a fraction of the price that carnivores shell out. The kadu chalow hogs most of the attention, its candied squash balanced with yogurt, tomatoes, garlic and a dash of cumin. But the falafel platter packs plenty of pleasures, too, each fried chickpea patty hunkered down in a bottom layer of hummus and tahini, then camouflaged with diced tomatoes, sliced red onions, paprika and cilantro leaves. Lost among these more colorful offerings are the underappreciated workhorses at Mazadar: the palow and chalow rice, the former a vegetarian imposter given that it’s prepared with lamb stock. The latter is an oil-slicked mound of (mostly) white grains, each as individual as snowflakes.
After a number of visits, I have adopted a general rule: Avoid most of the non-Afghan dishes, particularly the lackluster dips, and save those calories for Mazadar’s small selection of desserts. The Persian ice cream may be hard to reject during these sweltering summer months. The two daffodil-tinted scoops of vanilla ice cream follow a surprising path: They start sweet and silken before revealing their rose water bouquet, then culminate with a small shock of bitterness, courtesy of saffron. Just as interesting, the firnee is an ethereal pudding lightly perfumed with cardamom and topped with crushed pistachios.
Just the thought of pistachios brings me back to Afghanistan and its seemingly never-ending war. Taliban insurgents have apparently wreaked havoc on the forests where pistachio trees grow wild. It's just one more burden for Afghans to shoulder, and it's enough to make me offer a final suggestion: If you visit Mazadar, stop by the fountain. Drop a few pennies into its gurgling waters and make a wish for peace and stability in Afghanistan.
If you go
11725 Lee Highway, Fairfax. 571-432-0101. www.mazadarrestaurant.com.
Hours: Sunday noon to 9 p.m.; Monday-Tuesday 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Wednesday-Friday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Saturday noon to 10 p.m.
Nearest Metro: Vienna, with a 6.5-mile trip to the restaurant.
Prices: Soups and starters, $3.99-$12.99; entrees and kebabs, $10.99-$28.99.