An Array of Afghan Kebabs, and a Tilt Toward India
By Stephanie Lyness
Reviewed March 4, 2007


GIVEN that Afghanistan lies at the crossroads of India, China and the Middle East, we might well expect the food to reflect all of those influences. But, aside from the kebabs, what a meal at Shish Kebab House most brings to mind is a quieter version of Indian cuisine.

The restaurant’s West Hartford location, which opened in August 2006, replaced the original Shish Kebab House on Franklin Street in Hartford. For those who knew the old place, the menu here is the same.

A collection of kebabs, which arrive off the skewer, accompanied by a generous portion of rice pilaf and a vegetable, are at the core of the menu. A kebab is such a simple thing: meat, poultry or seafood that is seasoned (perhaps marinated) and cooked with dry heat. But it is this very simplicity that is difficult for the cook to achieve. There is nothing to hide tough meat or ill seasoning.

All of the kebabs that my guests and I have eaten here, with the exception of a rather strong-tasting swordfish, have been exceptionally good. The lamb, offered either as chunks of leg or slices of loin on the bone, was particularly delicious. Well seasoned with spices that enhanced the flavor, both cuts were very tender when I tasted them, despite being cooked to medium.

While somewhat chewier, the beef kebab was equally tasty and splendidly meaty. The chicken was tender, not dry, and more flavorful than usual.

India enters the scene with the pilafs, vegetables and some of the appetizers. According to the menu, the pilafs are made with a particularly fine long-grain rice from the south of Afghanistan. “Brown” rice pilaf (the rice turns golden brown in the cooking — it is not unhulled) is mildly flavored with cumin. The kabeli palow is scented with both cardamom and cumin, and garnished with raisins, almonds and sweetened julienne of carrot. In both, the delicate grains of rice are dry and separate from one another, and very reminiscent of an Indian pilaf.

Each kebab is served with a choice of vegetable (vegetarians can order an additional one in lieu of meat). I particularly liked both the mushrooms, sautéed with thickly sliced onion and chunks of tomato, and the savory, dark orange pumpkin purée, the candylike sweetness of which is balanced by a pleasant tartness and a little heat. Potatoes and spinach are perfectly pleasant if more ordinary, but I found the thick rounds of eggplant — steamed, fried and topped with yogurt — too heavy and tasting of deep-fry oil.

Appetizers are a fascinating mix for those unfamiliar with the cuisine. Samosas are crisp, deep-fried triangles stuffed with potatoes and served with a spicy cilantro dipping sauce. Mantoo are steamed dumplings, wrapped in a thin, delicate dough and filled with meat that has been cooked with coriander and onion; the dumplings are topped with tomato, homemade yogurt, yellow split peas and dried mint. Ashak are a slightly different version of the same, filled with spinach and scallion, bathed in tart yogurt and a spicy tomato sauce, dotted with ground beef, yellow split peas and dried mint. Less exciting were pakawra, wedges of potatoes that are battered and deep-fried.

Pea soup is a homey puréed concoction based on tomato, seasoned with garlic, coriander and a little cayenne. And the salads are enormous, whether you choose a lemon or yogurt dressing, both with little or no oil.

A couple of the desserts are first-rate: The fernee, an Afghan rice pudding flavored with cardamom and rose water and topped with berries, is a dead ringer for the Indian rice pudding kheer, and baklava is a pleasingly dry and chewy rendition of the walnut- and honey-layered phyllo dessert.

An unexpected pleasure, discovered at my first meal here, was the Afghan tea called sher chai, a milky, spiced tea that closely resembles Indian chai (though without the sumptuous richness of the buffalo milk) — a fine end to a satisfying meal at a reasonable price.

Shish Kebab House of Afghanistan
36 LaSalle Road
West Hartford
(860) 231-8400
www.afghancuisine.net

VERY GOOD

THE SPACE The ground floor has a bar and a small market with rugs (some very good quality) and groceries; the dining room is on the second (elevator allows wheelchair access).

THE CROWD Mostly older, casually dressed; very few children despite a children’s menu.

THE BAR Full bar with small, reasonably priced wine list.

THE BILL Dinner entrees, $15.95 to $26.95; $31.95 per person for an Afghan feast that includes a mix of appetizers; one dumpling; seafood, beef, chicken, and lamb kebabs; all vegetable sides; kabeli palow and spinach rice (four-person minimum). Most credit cards accepted.

WHAT WE LIKE Samosas, mantoo, ashak, pea soup, salads; beef kebab, leg of lamb kebab, lamb loin chops, chicken kebab; pumpkin purée, sautéed mushrooms, “brown” rice, kabeli palow; fernee, baklava, Afghan tea.

IF YOU GO Lunch: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Dinner: Monday through Thursday, 3 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 3 to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 2 to 9 p.m.