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Recently, I was shocked to find I had hit the wall—the food wall, that is. The mere thought of another crusty pile of deep-fried calamari, a pretty heirloom tomato salad or a platter of organic beef sliders left me cold. Not even a fancy cocktail or flirty flute of bubbly sparkling wine could perk my interest. My taste buds needed a vacation, a respite from California and “New American” cuisine to restart my gastronomic engine.
So I booked my jaded taste buds on a much-needed holiday to the far reaches of Citrus Heights, at an intriguing jewel of a restaurant called Bamiyan. What could be more rejuvenating, I pondered, than a plateful of Afghan food? It turned out to be a delightful and deeply restorative vacation.
My first task was to jar my surly palate out of its Chardonnay complacency. I ordered Bamiyan’s scorchingly hot green tea, a slightly sweet, delicately cardamom-flavored beverage that beautifully set the stage for the meal. Even my kids, suspicious of this exotic cuisine, slurped it down with gusto. We admired Bamiyan’s walls, hung with complexly beautiful rugs, and envied diners who sat on the floor as they savored their kebab mahie (marinated salmon grilled on a skewer) and pomegranate salad. Haunting Arabic music in the background reminded me that I was worlds away from truffle oil-infused “smashed” potatoes and artfully stacked, fusion-y appetizers.
Ordering was difficult: how to choose between Afghan noodle soup, dolloped with a traditional thick yogurt topping, or the Kabul-style crisp-fried trout? I was in heaven. We started our culinary holiday with mantoo, plump steamed dumplings stuffed with subtly spiced ground beef and soft yellow onions. Festooned with yellow split peas, tangy yogurt and a luscious garlic-mint sauce, the appetizer looked like a party on a plate. We all popped a dumpling messily in our mouths, enjoying the comforting flavors. Appetizers I’ll be back for next time include bolani, battered and deep-fried sliced potatoes served with a cilantro chutney sauce, and the soul-nourishing Afghan pea soup, liberally seasoned with coriander, cayenne and garlic.
Skewered, charbroiled meat is the most popular entrée at Bamiyan, and selections range from beef tenderloin and sausage to leg of lamb and lemon-marinated swordfish. Both skewered meats we sampled were marvelous. The chunks of chicken, smokily alluring and crispy on the outside, remained moist inside. The leg of lamb, chewy and extremely flavorful, was another winner.
We ventured beyond the skewers and ordered sautéed catfish, smothered with softly stewed onions, tomato and garlic and embellished with earthy coriander seed and a feisty bite of black pepper. Other skewer-free dinners include fragrant, kid-friendly kofta—saucy Afghani meatballs—and kabeli palow, rice topped with seasoned almonds, raisins, carrots and lamb or chicken. For vegetarians, there are three house specialties: the Vegetarian “Dinner,” “Platter” and “Delight,” all showcasing the true gems of this cozy restaurant—the side dishes.
Yes, it’s the nubbly-smooth, sweet-savory, gorgeously carnelian-colored pumpkin purée (halwaiy kadu) that will lure me back to Bamiyan, not the charbroiled leg of lamb. Eat it with the kitchen’s toothsome “green rice,” flecked with spinach and enlivened with a judicious touch of cinnamon and cumin. Other not-to-miss side dishes are korma kachalo (potatoes cooked with onions, garlic and tomatoes) and brony bonjan (eggplant slices with flesh so custardy it dissolves in your mouth like a seductive treat). Scoop ’em all up with dimpled flatbread, a useful and edible tool that, according to my 6-year-old daughter, is “way cooler than a spoon.”
Desserts include Afghani-style vanilla ice cream, flavored with rose water and sprinkled with dates, figs and pistachios, and roasted, sugar-coated almonds. We dove into a creamy bowl of fernee, a rich pudding that packs a perfumey palate-smack of rose water, with a gentler, lingering finish of cardamom and pistachio flavors. We also enjoyed the cigar-shaped, housemade (and, curiously, very cold) baklava, a flaky-sweet finish to an exciting, refreshingly different meal.
Energized and renewed, I left Bamiyan with a gastronomic engine well-revved. Ready to devour the next free-range chicken paillard that comes my way, I (and my taste buds) thanked Bamiyan and its gracious staff for a much-needed and truly delectable vacation.
Good for you: According to the menu, Afghans do not use butter or heavy cream in their cooking
Down low: Call ahead to reserve a low table, which requires you to sit on the floor