Two Hours Before the Maste
The stretch of Coney Island Avenue that runs through Ditmas Park marks the culinary center of the city's thriving Muslim community, packed with more restaurants serving halal meat than any other district. Their fronts emblazoned with Arabic or Cyrillic characters, most dish the scarf of Pakistan or former Soviet republics. In the middle is Bahar Shishkebab House, a solitary Afghan establishment boasting a large dining room lined with dramatic color photos of monuments and empty mountain gorges, as if a mujahedin column were about to snake around the corner. And though the room is dominated by the great cave of a tandoor hearth, you can eat well without ever touching a kebab, or, indeed, without even ordering meat.
Bolani kadu ($4) is a plate-sized pumpkin turnover cut into strips so the scented gourd oozes at the edges. It's served with a decent herbed-mayonnaise dressing, but if you know what's good for you, order maste ($2), a homemade yogurt dotted with cukes and goosed with garlic and fresh mint. A crisp strip of turnover makes the perfect spoon. Other bolani variations are less spectacularone filled with bland potatoes, the other doing a convincing imitation of Chinese scallion pancakes.
Eggplant, okra, and lentils also feature prominently on the bill of fare, but in contrast to the Pakistani places in the neighborhood, there's no fish except for a pro forma salmon kebab. Afghan food also emphasizes pastas, influenced by the noodle-rich cuisine of Uzbekistan to the north. There's ashi lobya ($7.50), a delicious entrée of broad noodles with kidney beans and yogurt accented with butter, a dish so rich you'll have to do some fast talking to convince the waitress to serve it to you as a shared first course.
The menu has a remarkable Persian flair, beginning with its rice obsession. Each main course assigns one of four varieties, although substitutions are permitted. Even the simple white rice (called by its Farsi name of "chalow") has a festive aura. Each well-oiled grain glistens, and you'll soon find out why: an enormous gob of stewed lamb hides underneath. Nor is the version described as brown basmati the health-food nostrum; rather it's white rice stained sepia by meat juices, further darkened with a blizzard of ground sumac. The third choice is kabli, just like number two only strewn with raisins and carrots, a perfect match for the oniony roast chicken in morgh palow ($9). The last type is a pilaf of pistachios and orange rind deploying what smells like nine dollars' worth of saffron. Topped with a generous lamb kebab in narieng palow ($9), this rice radiates an X-Files glow.
White chalow goes best with stewed dishes, which are as profuse as kebabs on the menu. Order sabzey chalow ($7.50) and discover a mild lamb curry poured into a ring of spinach. The sweet slurried vegetable is a perfect foil for the meat, but whether you immediately mix the two or treat them as individual dishes is up to you. The brown basmati accompanies the kebabs, of which the best is the bone-in chicken ($8), although the black-peppered medley of four tough and tasty charcoal-grilled lamb chops comes a close second.
Although the huge portions of meat and rice have induced stupor, who could resist a dessert named gooshi feel ($3.50)? It's not a sex act, but the two elephant ears of fried dough dribbled with honey and pistachios can satisfy a whole table anyway.
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