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Balanced Act

[whitespace] Afghani House
Christopher Gardner

A New Lease on Spice: Underneath cream-colored arches, diners enjoy the national dishes of Afghanistan.

Afghani cuisine negotiates a compromise between Persian and Indian flavors

By Andrew X. Pham

FANS OF PERSIAN cuisine who find Indian food overpowering will love Afghani cooking--the perfect compromise that blends spices subtly enough for any palate. Sunnyvale's Afghani House is an old hand at making winning cases for fine Afghani dining.

Contrasted against crimson carpeting, the restaurant's whitewashed dining room, curvaceous with arches, feels lush without being garish, and decidedly Afghani without being touristy. Resplendent with white linen and a copious number of potted plants, this midsize space, formerly a Mexican restaurant, is decorated with a tasteful and diverse collection of art and artifacts, ranging from a slipper to tapestries and paintings. Its bright, open ambiance favors elegant dinners over intimate meals for two.

The menu is fairly basic and unchanging, featuring some scrumptious appetizers and an abundance of kebabs (lamb, beef and chicken). Vegetables are the regulars: cauliflower, eggplant, squash, spinach and turnip. There are no daily specials and no seasonal accents. Service is fast and attentive. The selection of wines available by the glass is limited, none outstanding. Beer is probably a better choice unless you're aiming for a whole bottle of wine.

Starters at Afghani House are meant for sharing. The kitchen makes excellent sambosa, crispy triangle purses of fried pastries filled with ground beef and chickpeas. Mantu, steamed dumplings fattened with minced onion beef, are also delicious. All appetizers are boosted by a pungent chutney of jalapeños, garlic, parsley, chopped walnuts and vinegar.

Lamb is definitely the restaurant's highlight, although the grill chef has a tendency to overgrill by one notch (i.e., a medium-rare order yields medium; a medium order yields medium-well). But the good char-finish on every kebab lends the meat lovely black lines and a nice sharp bitterness. For instance, the lamb loin chops ($18)--two thick cuts, almost 12 ounces, grilled on skewers--taste juicy and clean, the way good lamb ought to be. Cherry tomatoes, onion quarters and bell pepper chips provide welcome counterpoints and textural relief to the robust meat flavor.

At the top end of the menu, dupiaza ($22) provides a visual feast: a quintet of lamb rib chops encircles like petals a single mushroom draped in curls of magenta onions.

Ideally, every meal should be accompanied by at least three side dishes; otherwise the flavors become tiresome. The kitchen supplies each entree with naan--the Afghani equivalent of focaccia--and browned rice, neither qualifying as a "side dish." A good rule of thumb is to order as many side dishes as there are diners in a party.

There are seven side dishes ($2.75 to $3.25). Our favorite is the buranee-e-badenjan, eggplant sautéed with tomatoes, onion, green pepper and chile pepper, and topped with yogurt. Another big hit is the buranee-e-kadu, chunks of fragrant butternut squash topped with a dollop of creamy white yogurt and a spoonful of keema, a light meat sauce made with oil, chopped onion, ground beef and tomato puree. The sautéed spinach is delicately tempered with only onion, salt and garlic.

Desserts are best taken with cups of not-so-strong but decent choi, Afghani black tea. Lacking in presentation but rich in taste, the baghlava ($2.95) sandwiches walnuts and pistachios, finely chopped and honeyed, between seemingly infinite layers of incredibly thin phyllo awash in rosewater syrup. Dusted with ground pistachios and almond slivers, the firnee ($2.75) is a light pudding, faintly sweet, with a texture similar to Asian dessert tofu.

Afghani House endears itself to everyone, successfully making its foods as accessible as any exotic restaurant may. We certainly look forward to revisiting this classy and smooth operation.

Afghani House
Cuisine: Afghani
Ambiance: Formal, with casually dressed diners seated in the rear
Menu: Starters and sides $3-$5, entrees $10-$22
Hours: Lunch Mon.-Fri. 11:30am-2pm; dinner Mon.-Thu. 5:30-9pm, Fri.-Sat. 5:30-10:30pm, Sun. 5:30-9:30pm
Address: 1103 E. El Camino Real, Sunnyvale
Phone: 408/248-5088

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From the March 5-11, 1998 issue of Metro.

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