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Thursday, April 30, 2015

Afghan Retreat

From the Food Vault Dept.: Kabul Night closed a little over a year after I reviewed it, opened again after five months, then closed for good after several months more. So much for whatever boost I tried to give. Afghan fare is too scary for Schenectady. As of this writing, the building hosts an operation called Canvas, Corks, and Forks, about which you can learn more here. On to my review.


PURELY FROM AN ANECDOTAL STANDPOINT, I look at an ethnic diversity of restaurants as the key to a city’s health. In the Capital Region, Schenectady has long been the laggard. But a five-month-old Afghan restaurant is a mighty shot in the arm, tempting this culinarily cautious clientele into new territories. Shrewdly, the place is located about equidistant from downtown and Union College, not doubt hopeful that the latter will provide a doughty customer base.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Kabul Night is on Union St., a couple of blocks east of Erie Blvd., in the former Night Sky Café building, itself a former storefront with its front door inset between a pair of presentation windows, now sporting tables.

The restaurant is owned by Karima and Shafi Rasoully, city residents for a dozen years and onetime owners of Arizona Pizza. They’ve bravely forsaken that simpler cuisine for the kabobs and curries of their native land, and offer a menu rich in traditional manifestations of chicken, beef, lamb and a veggie variety.

The neighborhood is nothing special, giving the pleasant inside of the place the added charm of feeling like a retreat from the surrounding decay. Tables and chairs are dressed or draped in colorful linens, and the walls display an abundance of art and artifacts, including the famous portrait of Sharbat Gula.

And you’ll see the chafing dishes that are filled for the weekday lunch buffet ($8), served from 11:30-2.

No liquor license as yet, so content yourself with coffee or a choice of tea. Or, if you’re a Philistine like me, a dreadful diet soda.

When I visited, on a recent weeknight, the place was nearly empty but steadily filled. The servers are attentive but decidedly unpolished. Still, smiles and sincerity go a long way and at no time were we unhappy with the pacing of the meal.

You’re already familiar with Indian/Pakistani cuisine, so you’re partway here. Chicken tandoori ($11.50) is a marinated meat cooked at a very high temperature and colored a disturbing crimson, which also characterizes the scarlet (but delicious) kabob murgh ($12), which gives you chicken chunks in a creamy, garlicky sauce over rice.

Chicken shammi kabob ($12) is a ground-meat variant mixed with onion and spices before hitting the grill, then served over rice with a homemade chutney.

Kabobs have the most American face of the entrées, at least if you grew up as I did with the backyard grilling of skewered meat cubes and vegetables. But instead of the salad-dressing-as-marinade approach taken by my neighborhood’s kings of the Kingsford, Kabul Night flavors its kabob ingredients with more pungent spices, imparting a much more mouth-filling sensation. In terms of heat, nothing imperiously spicy is going on, but the palette of flavors is admirable.

Kofta kabob ($13) is made with ground beef, like a kibbe; mix it with chunks of lamb (available alone as a lamb tikka kabob, $13) and it’s the $15 sultani kabob. Also available is a chicken shish kabob ($16) and a chopan kabob ($15), made up of four lamb chops.

Varying combinations are offered for more adventurous sampling: two manager’s specials ($18-$19) each boast a selected trio of the abovementioned.

Any meat seems healthier when thrown over a bed of greens. Here you can get lamb kabob over a garden salad ($10.50) or good old chicken breast ($10).

Savor the intricacies of Afghan cookery in the rice dishes. I enjoyed the qurma palow ($12), a subtle, flavorful bowl of rice with a mild, onion rich lamb curry spooned over top of it. There’s also a brown rice version (kabeli palow, $13) offered with chicken or lamb curry and finished with almonds and raisins.

More such rice dishes make up the vegetarian fare. Of the three $10 items, two feature tomatoes in the sauce (bindi palow, with okra, and bonjan borani, an eggplant dish with a garlic sauce) and the other is a spinach-and-onions item called sabzi palow.

Afghan pasta is more of a dumpling than anything spaghetti-like, even in Schenectady; an order of ashak ($11) is filled with spinach and scallions, served with a yogurt sauce; mantoo ($11) gets beef within.

There’s even a seafood dish: kabob-e-mahie ($16), featuring marinated salmon.

Before we get to the finish, the starters ($4.50 apiece): pakawra (or pakora), which are batter-fried potatoes, and samosa, pastry filled with peas and potatoes, are familiar from Indian versions; unique to Afghan cooking is kadu borani, which re-flavors butternut squash into an amazingly pungent, delicious delicacy.

For dessert – what else? – baklava ($4.50), richer and more potent than the corn syrup-sweetened domestic version, but still light enough not to obscure pleasant memories of the rest of the meal.

Interestingly, in the days following my visit to Kabul Night, two different friends raved about the place to me, each insistent that I should write about the place. It’s nice to make your friends happy.

Kabul Night, 402 Union St., Schenectady, 346-xxxx. Serving Mon-Fri 11-9, Sat noon-9. Lunch buffet Mon-Fri 11:30-2. D, MC, V.

Metroland Magazine, 16 April 2009

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