War, although unfortunate in almost every way, can pay some ex post facto dividends in foodland. (Emphasis on post.) Would we have the Slanted Door today if misguided policies founded on ignorance and false premises a half century ago had not led us into Vietnam? War creates refugees, and if the war is an imperial one, the refugees allied with the imperial power tend to seek refuge in the home territory of that empire homeland is the homey term we use today often bringing with them little besides culinary knowledge. Of course, the moral equation here is absurd; who would not vote to give up the Slanted Door, and all the rest of the excellent Vietnamese restaurants that have opened here in the past generation, if by doing so we could undo the Vietnam War? But we can’t. The most we can do is look for some sort of redemption in food we might well never have heard of, let alone tried, but for the warmongering of fools in positions of power.
Fisherman’s Wharf I speak of the neighborhood, not the pier proper is a curious place for an Afghan restaurant, but that is where we find Kabul City, which opened in May across the street from a large open space at Beach and Taylor that should be a public square but is instead a parking lot filled with Hummers. The area is the Vatican City of local tourism; it is in but not of the city and so different from it, physically and metaphysically, as to constitute nearly a separate jurisdiction. The restaurant’s windows do afford an appealing view, from an unusual, backside angle, of Russian Hill. Better to keep one’s gaze fixed there than on the spectacle nearer at hand, with its general sense and look of cheerful vulgarity. Would these rushing tourists, I wondered, be interested in Afghan food? Afghanistan has been an unhappy place for a long time, and a great deal of travel has to do with escape from reality.
As for the locals: experience suggests that they or we go to considerable pains to avoid the neighborhood. Yet Kabul City is worth braving the knickknack shops and Hummers for. The restaurant’s food is distinctive, well prepared, and fairly priced, and the setting (at least once you’re safely inside) is neither grubby nor overwrought. It’s far too early to say whether Afghan cooking will find the same vogue Vietnamese cuisine has attained in this country, but it’s not too early to say that if Kabul City is a glimpse of tomorrow, tomorrow isn’t looking hopeless. (I should also note here that for the moment, Kabul City is also the only Afghan restaurant in town, since the Helmand, on Broadway at the foot of Telegraph Hill, remains closed after a February landslide. The Bay Area’s biggest Afghan community, meanwhile, is in Fremont.)
Although much of Afghan cuisine, as presented by Kabul City, turns on familiar Middle Eastern cues, there are also dishes you aren’t as likely to have seen before. In the former category are kabobs grilled meat in various guises. Tekka kabob ($12.99; $6.99 at lunch) consists of charbroiled lamb chunks served with salad and basmati rice, while shami kabob (same prices) looks like a pair of skinless, seasoned-ground-beef sausages. The rice is good, but the Afghan flat bread (called naan but baked in square rather than round loaves) is better, especially when dipped in the accompanying yogurt-cucumber sauce.
Yogurt, in fact, is put to all sorts of clever uses. It turns up pureed with cilantro as a sauce for pakowra ($4.99), deep-fried, peppery slices of potato that look like the soles of pink bedroom slippers. It is folded into badinjon burani ($4.99 as a starter), a baba ghanoush<\d>like mash of panfried eggplant. And it appears mixed with garlic and mint as a topping for kadu burani ($7.99), chunks of panfried pumpkin. The squash here really did seem to be pumpkin, so points for complete disclosure, but the dish would have been better less stringy, more intensely tasty if another orange-flesh squash, like butternut, had been used.
One of the most striking preparations on the menu is mantu ($12.99), a plateful of steamed dough pillows stuffed with seasoned ground beef and onions and presented under a blanket of yogurt sauce flecked with green peas and diced carrots. The pillows reminded me of ravioli, of course, but also because of the their pleated tops of shu mai, the little Chinese dumplings that so often figure in dim sum services. Afghanistan shares a border with China, so the similarity probably isn’t coincidental. It’s also landlocked, which goes some way toward explaining the lack of seafood on the menu.
The restaurant’s owner, Syed Ahmadi, presides over the front of the house with mystical grace. In theory he could have plenty to do, since Kabul City isn’t small. An entire corner of the space, in fact, is given over to a slightly elevated platform laid with beautiful rugs and pillows and set with low tables you recline rather than sit at. The Last Supper was enjoyed in this fashion, as was the infamous banquet in Kandahar in October 2001 presided over by Osama bin Laden and captured on video for a still-stunned world. Afghanistan was a battlefield then and still is today, but tomorrow, as Scarlett O’Hara once told us from the midst of our own traumatic war, is another day.*
Daily, 11:30 a.m.9:30 p.m.
380 Beach, SF
Beer and wine
Pleasant noise level