Afghan food - with its grilled meats, yogurt sauces, and spicy dumplings - is hard to find, but worth seeking.
By STEVE & LISA ALCAZARI, Staff Writer

After covering the Hartford-area restaurant scene for a few years now, Lisa and I feel like we've gotten to taste a good cross-section of the dining-out offerings. But there are a few restaurants -- long-established, old standbys and regional favorites -- that we've stayed away from because our predecessors had reviewed them in years past. As everyone knows, the restaurant business is a fickle and tricky one; a huge percentage of new restaurants don't survive beyond their first year. In many cases, it's the best restaurants -- the most beloved, with the finest food and service -- that have staying power and longevity. But, the logic behind making a return visit, years later, to an old standard is to see that the reputation is warranted, that standards remain high, that the staff hasn't gotten overconfident in their game. With that in mind, we paid a visit to Hartford's Shish Kebab House of Afghanistan on Franklin Avenue.

Despite a rocky start (we had to stand and wait for several minutes while a table was set, though there were clearly several available spots) Lisa and I had a delicious meal of expertly grilled and seasoned meats and several complex and unusual dumplings, fruity rice dishes and a selection of vegetable sides. Shish Kebab House makes the most of Afghan carpet-making traditions, with richly patterned ruby-colored rugs draped between booths and on walls. Decorative woven tapestries, pewter trays and pictures of magnificently tiled mosques and the now-destroyed Bamiyan Buddhas brighten up the room. There's a small emporium area near the back of the restaurant, where one can buy spices, CDs and Turkish coffee pots.

Once seated on firm wooden chairs at a table not far from a window looking out on Franklin Avenue, we started from the appetizer section with orders of samosas and a dish called mantoo, which are meat- and vegetable-filled steamed dumplings bathed in a cool yogurt sauce. Those unfamiliar with Afghan food will notice a similarity to Indian cuisine, and with the stuffed dumplings, yogurt dishes and heavy seasoning, that's certainly one connection. Afghan food also has a natural relationship to Middle Eastern fare (find a rough midpoint between India and the Middle East and there you are). The menu describes the samosas as "fried noodles filled with spices," and that might be a bit difficult to picture, but the noodles in question are more like wonton wrappers and from the outside, the samosas at Shish Kebab House look more like something you'd find at a Chinese restaurant, but the stuffing of potatoes, peas, onions and spices is very much akin to the familiar Indian appetizer. This was served with a spicy and piquant green sauce, similar to tangy cilantro chutney. The mantoo was unlike anything we've had. Imagine a plate of spicy ravioli made with yogurt sauce instead of marinara, then throw in some firm yellow peas and a hint of lemon juice and mint, and you may be approximating the effect. But for the peas, which were a little undercooked, the mantoo alone is worth making a trip to Shish Kebab.

There was more satisfaction to come, too. We tried the kabeli palow, a rice dish made with almonds, raisins, carrots, cardamom and lamb. This is one of those recipes where the assertive flavor of lamb is tamed by sweetness.

We also tasted the marinated and grilled trout, which had a touch of dryness around the edges and char from the grill, but was excellent, and probably the mildest thing we tried.

Anyone interested in more dynamic use of spice might like to try the beef shammi kebab. These large, sausage-like pieces of heavily seasoned ground beef had a robust and peppery flavor. We placed an order for a side of homemade yogurt served with cucumber, and we drizzled this over just about everything.

The vegetable sides can't go unmentioned. Dinners come with a choice of eggplant, pumpkin, spinach, or other daily specials. The pumpkin was a sweet and spicy puree, somewhere between the color, texture and taste of ketchup and ground parsnip. I would skip this next time. Without much in the way of seasoning, the spinach served as a chance to catch your breath. The tasty grilled eggplant was topped with a yogurt sauce.

We finished things off with cups of cardamom-flavored Turkish coffee. There's good reason Shish Kebab House of Afghanistan has had such a long and successful run in the area. This is simply the only place within a fairly large radius where you can taste food like this.