Steppes to Heaven
Amir’s guides a sublime journey to Afghanistan.
Thursday, February 16, 2006
It had been months since Felix and I had last gotten together, so we knew when we stepped into Amir’s Kabob House on Lighthouse in Monterey that we would be lingering a few hours. You don’t grab a burger with a Felix. You settle in, let time slow down, allow life to release its grip so you can breathe again. If you’re lucky, something beautiful then catches your eye, or a delightful flavor sparks your imagination, and the experience is complete: you are transported to a more gracious existence. That sort of thing can happen at Amir’s.
Part of the magic of this Afghan restaurant, the only one between here and the Bay Area, is the visual contrast between austerity and lushness. The walls are stark white—except for a few magnificent crimson carpets. The photos on the wall show pale, sere mountain ranges, with brightly attired women in the foreground. The high ceiling is antique stamped tin. The spare music is in a key unfamiliar to the Western ear.
The food, on the other hand, has nothing to do with simplicity. It is all delicate complexity and spice, the ornate cousin of Persian cuisine residing at a Silk Road address. The one exception is the Afghan naan, a cross between pita and matzoh. It came to the table right away along with two vinegary chutneys. Far from the luscious, yeasty but overfilling bread of Western cuisine, which has smothered countless appetites through the ages, this is true palate-primer, a bare-bones vehicle for sauces that pique the appetite. The green chutney, with parsley and chile, is hot. The red is positively incendiary. Use caution.
From a small but good wine list I chose a glass of Banrock white shiraz and Felix selected a Logan Chardonnay to fuel our confab. We had finished deconstructing life and just started putting it back together again when we decided to order; these endeavors require strength. Our delightful waitress, who seemed to have a natural gift for hospitality, answered our questions and got our meals underway.
My mantu ($4.95) arrived a civilized amount of time thereafter, a small fragrant platter of four delicate Afghan raviolis. Paper-thin dumpling dough encased a mixture of finely ground beef, onions and spices—I detected mint and perhaps cumin. The dish was topped with tomatoes and green peas and served on a pool of yogurt. It was sweet, spicy and wonderfully satisfying without overwhelming the palate.
Felix, meanwhile, seemed stunned by his shornakhod ($2.95). I was skeptical. Garbanzos, delicious? That’s the alchemy of spices for you. These chickpeas were served in a bowl of cool green garlicky vinaigrette with layers of flavor I could not parse. Was it parsley? Mint? Cilantro? I don’t know. I don’t even want to know. I want to keep the mystery intact and go back and enjoy it again.
For the entrée I chose the combination platter ($15.95), a kabob each of lamb and chicken. With my first bite of lamb I fell into a state of rapture. It was so tender. I have never had lamb like this. It was out of this world, medium rare on the inside and seared to juicy perfection on the outside. It tasted more like filet mignon than muttoney lamb. The chicken, too, was amazingly moist and delicious. The meal came with finely chopped spinach, cooked until it had acquired a tea-like flavor, and an earthy-tasting rice pallaw. It was an enormously satisfying meal.
Rolling his eyes in delight, Felix urged me to taste the banjan on his vegetarian platter ($12.95). I soon understood why. This pan-fried eggplant all but evaporates in your mouth. It is remarkably light and silky, like a perfectly baked quiche. The gulpea, a steamed cauliflower ragout, was merely good by comparison. Spinach and white rice steamed with cumin seeds rounded out the plate.
Dessert was an order of sheerberaing ($4.25), sweet, creamy rice pudding studded with almonds and pistachios and dusted with cardamom. It was an enchanting note on which to end a gorgeous meal. Next time I want to try the firnee, a rich milk pudding.
So that’s one evening at Amir’s. I may stop in one day for the all-you-can-eat lunch buffet ($8.99)—I hear it’s excellent—but I think for the most part I’ll reserve this place for a time when I need to stop, relax, and live for a few hours in another world.
<>Amir’s Kabob House>
<>><>794 Lighthouse Ave., Monterey
Tues-Fri 11:30am-2:30pm; 5pm-9pm>