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Cuisine trumps ambience when weighing Afghan dining options

Afghan Chopan Restaurant

104-12888 80 Ave., Surrey

604-543-2385

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$45 for dinner for two with tax and tip

Cuisine: Afghan

Afghan Horsemen Restaurant

202-1833 Anderson St., Vancouver

604-873-5923

$100 for dinner for two with wine, tax and tip

Cuisine: Afghan

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Let's play word association. I say "Afghan cuisine." You think, "Um, uh, military ration packs?"

Don't feel embarrassed if you've never heard of bolani, mantu or qabeli pallow. These traditional Central Asian specialties aren't exactly household names in Canada, where we probably have fewer Afghan restaurants (about a dozen outside Toronto) than there are mess halls in Kabul.

Although rare and exotic, some Afghan foods do taste vaguely familiar. Persian is the first word that comes to mind when eating fluffy basmati rice strewn with raisins and slivers of caramelized carrots. Bright cilantro chutney and fresh tomato lentil curry seem loosely linked to India, but lighter and less fiery. Steamed minced-beef dumplings in dainty wrappers evoke memories of China. And thick, minted yogurt brings you all the way back to Byzantine Greece.

Landlocked at the centre of the historic trade routes between Europe and Asia, Afghanistan became a culinary melting pot of myriad flavours that blend as smoothly as the word flow between "Silk Road" and "spice."

Or at least that's how it tastes at Afghan Chopan, a family-owned restaurant tucked at the back of an industrial mall in South Surrey.

Canada may not boast many Afghan restaurants, but Vancouver's Afghan Horsemen is one of the originals. Established in 1974, the owners proudly claim that it was the first Afghan restaurant in the country.

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But the mid-1970s, when Swedish meatballs were still considered avant-garde, was a difficult time for groundbreaking restaurateurs. To win the palates of local diners, Afghan Horsemen skewed its menu toward the more fashionable flavours of the Mediterranean, piling its plates high with humus, spinach, feta cheese and fat, fluffy pita bread not normally found in Afghan kitchens. And there it has stayed, mired in the heavy, buttery, gut-busting territory that one more commonly associates with Stepho's Greek Taverna, for nearly 40 years.

The new Afghan Horsemen locale, on Anderson Street across the bridge from Granville Island, is certainly cozy. In the seated dining room, tables are set with embroidered runners and the walls are covered in tapestries. The twinkling light from gilt chandeliers and lanterns is dim. In a separate room, you can sit on woven carpets, lean against cushions and eat from low trays in a more traditional manner. And this being one of the only Afghan restaurants serving alcohol, you can enjoy wine with dinner, if you manage to enjoy dinner, that is.

At Afghan Horsemen, the bolani (sometimes spelled boulany or bolawnee) is composed of chunky potatoes and sautéed onions smeared between a fried pita pocket cut into triangles still glistening with grease. Mantu, minced-beef dumplings, are encased in gummy wrappers with leaden yogurt and tomato sauces plopped over top.

The acclaimed Horsemen's Special Platter begins with a decent enough appetizer of chickpea and cooked-spinach dips, a Greek-style cucumber, feta and tomato salad, and thick, airy pita rounds that look like whole-wheat doughnuts and taste like Wonder Bread. The charred lamb and chickens kebabs are fine, but not noticeably seasoned. And the grilled lamb shoulder is a healthy portion (but gristly).

But the meat is all dumped on a platter of baked eggplant, sour cream, buttery rice and hard potatoes fritters saturated in oil that ooze together into a sludgy mess overwhelmed by the funky sulphur flatness and rundown boardinghouse stink of boiled cabbage.

It's dreadful. And at $48 for two, it's expensive when compared to the similarly sized and much more refined $29 Couple's Combo at Afghan Chopan.

The charming restaurant moved to its current location two years ago, consolidating a dining room, bakery and banquet hall all under the same roof. The family has previously owned restaurants in Toronto and New Westminster.

Brightly lighted, adorned two-wide screened televisions (typically tuned to a hockey game) and serenaded by the clickety-clack of cargo trains chugging past, Afghan Chopan isn't the least bit romantic. And the elevated dastarkhan floor spread, furnished with carpets and cushions but no tables or trays, can be awkward for the stiff-limbed.

But the fresh, mouth-watering, delicately spiced food amply compensates for the lack of ambience.

Here, the bolani is a smooth purée, thinly spread between flaky, phyllo-like pastry sheets that are fried, but so light and clean they taste baked. The flatbread is sprinkled with tart sumac and served with a yogurt dip bursting with fresh mint. It's addictive.

The pinched dough around the mantu dumplings is thin, almost translucent. And the minced-beef tomato sauce is a perfectly seasoned blend of earthy and sweet.

Kebabs – tenderloin, lamb and chicken – are marinated to succulent tenderness. Beef shank, tucked under a faintly fruity pillow of long-grain rice baked in the meat's tomato braise, falls apart into soft shreds. The platter's iceberg lettuce salad is forgettable. And the cold, unleavened naan isn't pliable enough to wrap around the meat or scoop up the rice.

But milk chai and ferney, a light, crispy shelled custard studded with pistachios, offer a sweet, finish that won't leave you feeling stuffed.

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About the Author
Vancouver restaurant critic

Alexandra Gill has been The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver restaurant critic since 2005. She joined the paper as a summer intern in 1997 and was hired full-time as an entertainment columnist the following year. In 2001, she moved to Vancouver as the Western Arts Correspondent, a position she held until 2007. More

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