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January 25, 2011 > Restaurant Review: De Afghanan Restaurant

Restaurant Review: De Afghanan Restaurant

By Denny Stein

We had come in search of Kado Borani, a chunk of roasted pumpkin, or squash, sugared, baked and garnished with yogurt and mint. Kado Borani is one of those ubiquitous ethnic dishes remembered and sought anywhere Afghans serve the public. No matter where you dine, in Baltimore, Boston, San Francisco, or in between, kado (kadoo) borani will be a perennial favorite. De Afghanan Restaurant's rendition was perfect, two nights in a row, once with pumpkin and then with butternut squash. Sweet, firm, bold, creamy; if squash could have a personality I'd say this dish was Mrs. Genghis Kahn. What a divine way to start a memorable meal.

You can find De Afghanan Restaurant just to the right of the Center Theater if you look carefully. Large carved wooden doors are semi-concealed behind small patio walls (outlined by decorative white lights) resembling a neighborhood house in Kabul. We arrived on a cold rainy night, the doors opened, sounds of classical guitar poured out and the aromas pulled insistently. Warm red walls enclosed and protected us from the weather and the outside world.

Sit in a booth, at a table, or on long banquettes either side of the fireplace. Wais Omar will hand you a menu and, if you like, explain the story and the ingredients of each dish. We asked Wais for a sampling of signature dishes and were presented with a parade of Afghani fare; every bite passed the "hum" test. (Remember the "hum" test? When the flavors and textures stop the conversation and elicit just happy humming).

Even the simplest of dishes, homemade yogurt, made me smile at sweet lemony subtlety under the traditional tart taste. This Middle Eastern condiment went well with all the dishes we tried, adding tanginess to milder offerings like Bodinjon Borani, roasted eggplant and Afghan bread. It added creaminess to the sharper bite of Bolani, a spring onion and potato pastry, which came cut into squares, lying in a colorful woven basket.

Aziz Omar, eldest of seven Afghani brothers, opened the nearby Afghanistan Kabob House in 1983. De Afghanan, managed by his brother, Wais, was opened in March and bodes to be a huge success, judging by our experience.

Original art pieces, created by Sami Nadi of Fremont and Simi Valley, integrate the walls, immersing the diners in the culture and landscapes of Afghanistan. Nadi is a globally known artist who left Afghanistan in 1993, studied in Europe and settled in the United States in 2001. His work in the restaurant depicts iconic Afghan scenes such as the national dance and the national sport.

Large and alive, these bas-reliefs illustrate the fullness of life in a country most of us know only from dark tales of war. But it is the wall sculptures of Old Town Kabul (De Afghanan), that haunt me. Their three-dimensional aspect drew me through the old streets, up the hill, past women and children, old men and young, toward a tower on the mountaintop. Flanking this depiction of the oldest part of Kabul are three-dimensional renderings of famous minaret towers that dot the Afghani landscape.

Yogurt is a staple in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Unlike our sweetened and fruited American versions, these cuisines take advantage of its versatile texture and inherent taste. Yogurt is mixed with mint or cilantro, garlic and spices, used as a condiment or floated atop soups. Thinned, and mixed with small pieces of cucumber and mint, it is served in a glass over ice, and called Doogh. The icy fresh crunch and creamy sips will sooth any of the spicier tastes in your Manto or Chapli Kabob.

Recipes used at De Afghanan Restaurant were created by the Omar family. Every Afghani cook, Wais told us, has his or her own way of preparing (and spelling) even the most traditional foods. I pictured his family sitting around the kitchen table, tasting these dishes with first one spice combination, then another, until they determined it was just right. Now, each day, Wais Omar arrives early to mix the spices and other ingredients exactly the way his family prescribed.

It is this attention to detail and quality that is apparent in all Omar family offerings. The De Afghanan Kabob specialties reflect their assiduous efforts. We tried several kabobs, chicken, beef and lamb. Outstanding, according to Dr. Park, was the bone-in Chopan Lamb Kabob, juicy, meaty and "sweet!" as they say in today's vernacular. Prices for the kabobs and all dishes are more than reasonable, servings are plentiful, and the need for take home boxes unquestionable.

Our second night, we were impressed with the Cabili Palau, beef or lamb, piled high with rice, shredded carrots and raisins. Both evenings Wais insisted on offering desserts, large bowls of decidedly decadent (and probably calorically lethal) ice creams and milky puddings, garnished with pistachios. I found it impossible to just "taste" them.

While waiting for this last indulgence to settle, be sure to note the other two major art pieces in the room. Over the fireplace, another bas-relief, this time of the Smaller Buddha, one of the two Great Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban in the Bamiyan Valley. On another wall a large mural, or fresco, depicts the journey of Afghans along a river. Both of these works convey the poignancy of a people displaced, a country that is in limbo, politically and historically. I had this same feeling when I realized that the Sheer Yakh Jhala, an ice cream dessert served on shaved ice, had originally been made with snow. Remember, when you dine out, that even the food of a nation tells a story.

Visited January 2 & 5, 2010

De Afghanan Restaurant
37395 Fremont Blvd., Fremont
(510) 857-1009

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