Shish Kebab House of Afghanistan enchants diners well before they take a seat at one of its cozy tables.
By DANIELA ALTIMARI, Staff Writer

The air is redolent with spices; the walls are painted soft, mustard yellow; and beautiful rugs are everywhere - even under glass on the tops of tables.

Yet the food, while exotic, is familiar. Rice, dumplings, beef, chicken and lamb form the foundation of the restaurant's menu. We started with an appetizer order of samosas ($3.95). These crisp triangles stuffed with potatoes and peas are a staple at Indian restaurants. But the version served here is fresher and less greasy than any others we've sampled.

Even better was the pakawra ($3.95), slices of potatoes dipped in batter and fried until crunchy. Not diet food, but well worth the caloric splurge. More healthful appetizer offerings include salads ($4.95 each) offered with either a tangy lemon or yogurt dressing, and a hearty noodle soup ($3.95). A note on the menu explains that the restaurant eschews butter and heavy cream, relying instead on vegetable, corn and olive oils.

Shish Kebab House offers a tasting menu that features a variety of appetizers, shish chookebabs and other dishes. A bargain at $27.95, it's a good way to sample the cuisine. (The menu says this traditional Afghan feast is what you might expect if you are invited into an Afghan home.)

However, the meals are for a minimum of four people, so our party of three had to go it alone. One of us chose the beef kebab ($17.95), which featured tender chunks of meat in a flavorful but not-too-spicy marinade. Another chose mantoo ($14.95), toothsome little pasta pockets filled with spiced meat and onions and topped with split peas and yogurt. The third selected the vegetarian version of ashak ($14.95), boiled dumplings topped with sliced scallions, spinach, yellow peas and yogurt.

All were incredibly tasty, though everyone in our party agreed that the best thing on each of our plates was the side dish of pumpkin puree. Sweet and tangy, it was unlike anything we'd ever tasted. Now that we have, we find ourselves craving it constantly. The other sides were also quite good, especially the eggplant and kabeli palow. Only the undercooked potatoes disappointed.

Don't skip the desserts, which are a bargain at $3.95 each. The standout is something called fernee, a traditional pudding made with milk, cardamom and pistachios. This is a dessert worth splurging on.

Popular dishes: Shish kebabs (ranging from $13.95 for chicken breast to $22.95 for chicken, lamb and beef combination); mantoo (steamed dumplings filled with spiced meat and topped with yellow split peas and homemade yogurt sauce, $14.95); ashak (boiled dumplings filled with scallions and spinach, topped with beef and yellow peas, although it can be made vegetarian, $14.95); and Kabeli palow (rice seasoned with almonds, raisins and carrots and served with lamb, chicken or vegetables, $16.95).