Ever check your assumptions on how much an "ethnic" meal should cost? Vietnamese, Chinese, Mexican: cheap, no? Thai and Ethiopian: Depends on the decor. Indian and Pakistani: Seems to be changing. Until places like Vik's and Naan 'n' Curry got us addicted to $5 curries, South Asian food seemed to merit water goblets and $12 entrées.
As far as I can tell, whether a cuisine is judged to be worthy of very little or all of your disposable income depends on who sets up shop first. In the Twin Cities, where I went to college, the local Afghan restaurant was inexpensive enough that we students could eat there, and often, but the Bay Area's Afghan restaurateurs have definitely benefited from the success of long-running white-tablecloth places like the Helmand in San Francisco and Salang Pass in Fremont. Despite the fact that my two favorite Afghan restaurants right now are kebab shops -- De Afghanan Kabob House in Fremont, Chopan Kabob in Concord -- the tone of the East Bay's growing number of Afghan restaurants is decidedly tony.
Take two newcomers east of the Caldecott, Walnut Creek's De Afghanan and Pleasanton's Oasis. Earlier Afghan restaurants -- or possibly restaurants in the Old Country -- established the chicken kormas and kung pao prawns of Afghan cuisine, and neither menu departs from the formula. Within those tight boundaries, though, you'll find good eating.
At De Afghanan, it's the mantoo, steamed dumplings filled with spiced ground beef, their thin skins folded up like beggars' purses. The mantoo are slathered in tangy yogurt, dabbed with split peas in a tomato-curry sauce, and showered with chopped dill. Not only are the influences of Afghanistan's neighbors -- Iran, Pakistan, the former Soviet 'stans, China -- all present, they overlay one another spectacularly.
The restaurant, a confection of peaches and corals, is the classiest thing its strip mall has ever seen. Burlap has been twisted elegantly into drapes framing the windows, and the scraps were used to make cutouts of the country in the center of every glass-topped table. (Look up at the arches separating the seating area from the kitchen, and above them you'll spot another Afghanistan, this one a tile mosaic.) A Delacroix would not look out of place on the wall amid paintings of fighters on horseback and photos of the country's arid landscapes. While the welcome from the servers can be faint, once you sit down and order, the staff warms up considerably, making regular check-ins to see what else you need.
Owners Atiq and Mirwais Omar, who are brothers, are connected to the De Afghanan kebab shop and sit-down restaurant in Fremont. Atiq serves as the chef of the Walnut Creek branch, and his daughter, Aryan, handles the front of the house. The Omars' cuisine works in simple flavors. Sometimes, as with the aush, a thick tomato-based stew of pulses and noodles, they didn't come to much. Same with the sabzi challow, in which the cooks added braised lamb to spinach cooked down with enough stock and oil to smooth over the mineral edge of the greens, but the stew was so mildly seasoned that it didn't hold much interest. But in the bolani gandana, even though the mix of flavors was simple, the effect wasn't: There was nothing subtle about the sautéed young leeks and cilantro stuffed between paper-thin crepes the size of car mats, nor in the tangy dip of yogurt and dried mint that the bolani was served with.
The main courses at both restaurants consisted of larger versions of appetizers such as bolani and mantoo, stews and rice dishes like the sabzi challow, and kebabs. Lots of kebabs. De Afghanan's rocked. Chunks of chicken breast, rubbed with just enough spices to tint them pale gold, emerged from the grill tender, while the chapli kebab, a thin patty of ground beef with scallions and cilantro, crisped up. Then our server brought out a clear plastic jar of a dark-green puree and told us it was a parsley-cilantro-vinegar sauce. "We put it on everything," she advised, and after the first dab of the stingingly aromatic sauce, we did, too. Sparks began to fly out of the chapli kebab. And what that sauce did to the teka kebabs, cubes of beef already rolled in a thick crust of spices and grilled just until the bright-red center faded to pink, still makes me salivate with nostalgia.
At night in downtown Pleasanton, the lights of dozens of shops and bars twinkle through the trees and high suburbia seems miles instead of blocks away. Folks leave their cars to stroll up and down Main Street, sniffing at the aromas, and every restaurant that can set up tables outside has. Against this bustling scene, one-month-old Oasis Afghan Cuisine, in the ground floor of the elegant Rose Hotel, is still an oasis of calm, not yet discovered by passersby. Its room, an expanse of hardwood, is decorated simply, but between the wall of pressed copper on one side and the long bank of windows on the other, there's quite enough to look at. Water is served in goblets and slices of warm Afghan flatbread come in white linen. The menus, needless to say, are heavy.
The food could be, too. The sharp, greenish dressing on a salad of chickpeas, kidney beans, and potatoes appeared to be the same mint-parsley chutney that De Afghanan set out in jars, but Oasis didn't provide enough to counteract all that starch. The mantoo were lumpier, the ground beef filling less pungent, the pea-tomato sauce sweet instead of spicy. And several of the beef and chicken kebabs we tried had been marinated less aggressively and cooked more thoroughly. They were taking no chances with a suburban, Caucasian crowd.
But in other areas, Oasis glimmered. Afghan restaurants in the Bay Area make a distinction between two kinds of rice, challow and pallow, which the servers at both De Afghanan and Oasis described as "white" versus "brown." Challow is more a technique for cooking long-grained white rice than a dish; the grains come out chewy and slightly perfumed. Oasis' sabzi challow looked the same as De Afghanan's and had the same oil-fueled richness, but the chefs added enough herbs to the braised spinach to haunt the palate. Their pallow -- think "pilaf" -- is a rice baked with stock, onions, and spices. You can choose this brown rice with your kebabs, and it pairs well with the juicy, pink-centered lamb kebabs and a small salad. In the full kabuli pallow, a mountain of the rice comes decorated with sweet julienned carrots, raisins, and roast chicken or lamb.
As De Afghanan and Oasis stake out territory in cities where Afghan restaurants have seldom, if ever, trod, their owners are sensibly bidding for respect by creating welcoming environments. Comparing the two places, however, it becomes clear that the success of the food hinges on how much the cooks avoid dumbing it down for outsiders. Take a risk on us, and we'll take a risk on you.